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Why Did the West March for Paris but Not for Kunming?

Expert answers range from the state of Chinese civil society to Western discrimination.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In the days since the attacks that killed 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Chinese netizens have watched the outpouring of solidarity and reacted with a degree of resentment. Why, some on Chinese social media have asked, does Paris get a unity march, when the knife attacks that killed 27 people in the Kunming railway station on March 1, 2014, received so little attention in the West? A panel of experts addresses this question.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Tea Leaf Nation Fellow, Foreign Policy magazine:

To answer the question most narrowly, there was no march after the Kunming knife attack because Chinese people in Kunming did not march.

French government and society openly embraced outward expressions of mourning and actively welcomed foreign heads of state and representatives to join in. The families of the Charlie Hebdo attack’s victims led the Jan. 11 march in Paris with the support of French President François Hollande, who invited a number of world leaders and called upon all French citizens to participate. The response was stunning; up to 1.6 million marched in Paris, according to French officials the largest demonstration in French history.

There was, however, no Kunming march; families of the victims organized no massive vigil; President Xi Jinping did not call on all Chinese citizens to join him and other world leaders in a march through the streets; Xi did not address the gathered crowds and proclaim that “Today, Kunming is the capital of the world.” Such a great show of public unity in the face of terrible grief would likely have attracted greater global attention. But these or similar events did not occur, because Chinese authorities would have been unlikely to approve mass gatherings that touch on the sensitive issue of domestic terrorism. On March 3, a candlelight vigil near the scene of the attack drew around 100 people; this, in a city of over 6 million.

But the question is really a broader one: Why didn’t Western countries demonstrate greater solidarity with China after the Kunming knife attack? Here, Chinese censorship and the so-called Great Firewall of censorship play an important role. French citizens share numerous social media platforms, notably Twitter, with millions of others worldwide. When a French artist created the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and it started to trend on Twitter, people around the world were able to easily notice and join in the online solidarity. But by blocking Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in mainland China, Chinese authorities have consciously and purposefully cut off Chinese Internet users from social media platforms widely used in the rest of the world. This makes it much more difficult for people outside of China to share in online solidarity with events close to the heart of Chinese netizens, as the Kunming attack clearly was.

In addition, the aura of authoritarian reach surrounding the reporting on the Kunming attack, as well as suppression of social media reactions, created initial skepticism among outside observers as to the true nature of what had transpired in Kunming. China’s tightly controlled media were instructed to run only state-sanctioned reports, and avoid large headlines and gruesome photos. Witnesses to the knifing posted photos on Chinese social media, but censors quickly went through and deleted these photos and other non-sanctioned personal accounts of the brutal attack. Authorities immediately pinned the blame for the attack on “Xinjiang separatists” yet provided no evidence for this claim; as Western media outlets could not independently verify this, they were slow to adopt the language of terrorism. But Chinese netizens noticed this reluctance and slammed it as a Western “double standard.” Some in China seem to remain unaware that Western media did later call the attack an act of terrorism, and resentment continues to simmer in Chinese social media — as the online reaction to the Paris march demonstrates.

Taisu Zhang, Associate Professor, Duke University:

As a Chinese citizen who observed both attacks and their social media aftermath from afar, I find it impossible to shake the impression that the Western reaction to Paris was indeed more visceral and passionate than the reaction to Kunming. It may be somewhat attractive to blame this on the relative paucity of information on Kunming, but it is also true that, even after the basic facts of the knife attacks were fairly well-established, they never triggered anything remotely close to the level of Western grief or outrage that immediately followed the Paris shootings. There is also a strong likelihood that, among the many millions of Facebook or Twitter users who reposted #JeSuisCharlie, only a minority had more than a cursory knowledge of the shootings, and only a tiny minority bothered to investigate their broader social or historical context. The Western online reaction to Paris was knee-jerk, emotional, and explosive — as it certainly should have been. The reaction to Kunming was, by and large, none of those things.

At the same time, there really is no reason to either expect or demand that Western audiences have a similar reaction to both incidents. I am among those who believe, reluctantly, that emotional discrimination against perceived “others” is human nature. For all the talk about globalization since the 1990s, it is probably no exaggeration to state that, to most Westerners, China remains a culturally inaccessible, ideologically foreign “other” that simply does not generate the kind of instinctive familiarity and sympathy that other Western societies do. Scholars have many concepts and theories to describe the intellectual and societal consequences of this “otherness” — orientalism, Eurocentrism, and so on — but it would be deeply misguided to believe this is a uniquely Western phenomenon (or, for that matter, a modern one; the in-group versus out-group mentality is as old as human history). As much as Chinese netizens might lash out against perceived Western apathy, they themselves did not necessarily flood Weibo with principled outrage or grief towards the Paris shootings. They might argue that this was simply a response to the Western reaction to Kunming, but that is an unsatisfying explanation either from an intellectual or moral standpoint. To claim that Western cultural and political imperialism, or the autocratic nature of the Chinese party-state, makes it difficult to emotionally respond to Paris or Kunming as one would to a similar incident within one’s own cultural sphere is not so much a refutation of the “otherness” thesis, as it is an affirmation of it.

Whether emotional discrimination against “others” is desirable is a more difficult question. It seems to encourage conflict, and runs against many of our more exalted moral ideals. At the same time, it encourages group solidarity, facilitating the kind of societal discourse and cohesion that often makes those exalted ideals possible. It may also be a fool’s errand to morally justify (or attack) what may be, for better or worse, human nature.

James Palmer, Editor, Global Times: 

Most tragedies go barely noticed by the world. Terrorism gets more attention because media-fed spectacle is its goal. But even then, the vast majority of attacks, especially outside the West, disappear into the general flow of human suffering with barely a ripple.

Charlie Hebdo was different because the victims represented ideals and traditions behind which others, even those who did so hypocritically, wished to rally. The raucous French legacy of satire and anti-clericalism, the right to speak freely and without danger, even if it offends others, the dream that the pencil might be mightier than the sword; whatever qualms some might have about some aspects of these, all recognize their power.

The current Chinese system has no ideals capable of inspiring such affection across national borders, especially among the creative classes who are the bedrock of soft power. At best, the values it promotes are parochial and somewhat dull, at worst they are vicious and xenophobic. No Egyptian novelist has been inspired by the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, no Chilean cartoonist looks to the Chinese dream, no French filmmaker was moved by Hu Jintao’s already forgotten harmonious society. And the system has no tolerance for those who might produce or represent different principles, even ones rooted in Chinese tradition, that might stir dreams elsewhere, save for the pallid revival of officially-sanctioned Confucianism. The only figures that might win acclaim elsewhere for what they stand for are exactly those whom the government attempts to crush.

Moreover, even those stories that make it to China’s front pages are not permitted room to breathe. Scandals and tragedies that in other countries would run for months, for good reason, are disappeared within days or at best weeks. In China, the debate around terrorism, such as it is, has been behind closed doors, amid experts and officials. The French discussion on Islam, terror, and its colonial legacy may be incomplete, it may turn to vicious ends, it may be self-serving. But there will be a discussion, and the world will listen to it.

Andrew J. Nathan, Professor, Columbia University:

The Paris demonstrations were not against terrorism. To be sure, most people in the West oppose terrorism, just like most people in China. But Western publics do not march every time there is a terrorist act. The French people turned out in vast numbers because they perceived this particular act as an attack on the cherished value of freedom of speech. The only time I can think of when Chinese people were able to demonstrate in favor of freedom of speech was when a small group of protestors demonstrated against official interference in the editorial policies of Southern Weekly in Guangzhou in 2013. But far from being encouraged by the government, that demonstration was quickly squashed.

A debate has now sprung up in the West in the aftermath of the Paris demonstrations over whether insults to Muslims’ religious beliefs deserve to be protected as free speech — and there’s a subsidiary debate over whether Islam really does ban graphic images of the Prophet — but we see no effort on the part of Western governments to interfere in these debates. National publics in France, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere will find their own consensus points on these issues over time through democratic processes.

People are also talking about how social discrimination and Islamophobia may help to explain the appeal of terrorism to some Muslim youth. No one defends the use of murder as a response to offensive speech, but Western publics are willing to ask how our own policies contribute to despair and alienation in some communities in our midst. I would love to see a conversation like that spring up in China to probe the causes of growing despair among Uighurs and Tibetans.

Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor at Yale Law School.
Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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