Tea Leaf Nation
‘Where’s Our Unity March?’ China Wants to Know
Social media users ask why the West wept for Paris, but not for Kunming, also the site of a deadly attack.
The Jan. 7 terrorist attack on satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead has mostly inspired unity in the West, but the massive march held in its aftermath is spurring controversy, and even some disdain, in China. While the massacre’s assault on free speech brought up to 1.6 million to a Jan. 11 march in Paris, according to French officials the largest demonstration in French history, it’s inspired little such solidarity in China. That’s true even though — and perhaps because — China itself suffered several deadly terrorist attacks in the past year.
China reacted with sympathy toward the loss of life in the French capital, but the reaction stopped short of solidarity. Chinese President Xi Jinping called French President François Hollande on Jan. 8 to condemn the violence and express condolences to the victims’ families. On Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, Chinese netizens posted candle emoticons in remembrance of the victims. But after the Jan. 11 demonstrations, in which 40 world leaders linked arms and President Hollande declared that “Today, Paris is the capital of the world,” Chinese social media fulminated against the hypocrisy of Western values and the West’s “double standard” toward terrorism.
Much discussion about the march centered on the contrast between Western sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo victims and what Chinese see as Western indifference to the deadly March 2014 coordinated knife attacks in the southwestern city of Kunming, which claimed 29 victims, and which many in China have dubbed “China’s 9/11.” The Chinese government quickly blamed that attack on Islamist terrorists from the Western province of Xinjiang, a restive region with a high population of Muslim ethnic minorities. After Western media outlets proved initially reluctant to echo the government’s assertion that terrorism was the cause, an angry backlash shook the Chinese blogosphere.
That sentiment has now hardened into resentment. “In the Kunming knife attack, 29 people died,” one Weibo user wrote in a popular Jan. 12 comment in response to the Paris march, “but many Western countries didn’t acknowledge this as a terror attack. The Western double standard in defining terrorism is revolting.” Another user complained, “After Kunming, the West was unified in criticizing China’s human rights, not criticizing terrorism.” Another user wrote, “The West always thinks that it is infallible to use its own values to judge the entire world. Although I oppose violent terrorism, I am similarly irritated by Western hypocrisy.” One Weibo user invoked the French president’s Jan. 11 declaration. “After the Kunming attack, did Western media say, ‘Today, Kunming is the capital of the world’?”
Meanwhile, Chinese state media offered its own take on the limits of media freedom, a conception markedly different from that found in France. “There should be limits to the freedom of speech,” argued a short but widely discussed commentary from state-run Xinhua News Agency, penned by Ying Qiang, the outfit’s Paris bureau chief. The article described the French magazine’s cartoons as “vulgar” and “combative” and touted values of respect and tolerance for cultural differences. While Charlie Hebdo “may have made some people laugh,” the commentary opined, “the prerequisite for laughing is that it doesn’t hurt anyone.” The article quoted New York Times columnist David Brooks — who wrote in a recent op-ed titled “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” that most people “do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult” — to support the argument that Charlie Hebdo’s stance was overly provocative. “Unlimited and unprincipled satire, insult, and freedom of speech are not desirable,” continued the Xinhua article. The editorial concluded that if people would “put limits on themselves when venting ‘freedom,’ and respect others, there would be fewer tragedies in the world.” (It ignored the fact that Brooks’ article also stated that “healthy societies … don’t suppress speech.”)
Some Chinese netizens may have been less moved by the Charlie Hebdo massacre than their Western counterparts, but they were perfectly happy to clobber the Xinhua article, perhaps because they felt it, too, savored of hypocrisy. What the government-run outlet really means by “limits” on free speech, wrote one user, “is ‘you’re not allowed to say anything bad about me!’” Another wrote, “It’s a scary thing to try to find excuses for terrorism, as we in China also have terrorism problems.” Some felt the commentary lacked a sense of timing, and tact. Hu Haiping, a radio editor in Shanghai, wrote, “This is why Xinhua has no place among the world’s major media outlets.” Fan Zhongxin, a law professor at a teachers college in the southern city of Hangzhou, noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walked alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris to show solidarity in support of free press in the face of terrorism. “Do you see the distance between us and the rest of the world?” Fan asked.
It’s that very distance that perhaps lies at the root of Chinese discontent with the Paris march. There was no great show of unity on Chinese streets after Kunming, perhaps because authorities would have been unlikely to approve mass gatherings that touch on the sensitive issue of domestic terrorism. Citizens in China may wish they had been entitled to such a moment of catharsis. “I don’t understand the comparisons with Kunming,” one Weibo user wrote. After that attack, “Tell me, did similarly large crowds stand up? If everyone remains silent, how are other people going to pay attention to us?”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr