Inside the world's No. 2 power, grassroots calls to fight the terrorist group are growing.
- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
“I was talking with my friend today about what would happen if the Islamic State caught a Chinese person.” Provocative though the notion may be, that comment is one of many in Chinese social media discussing the Feb. 3 release of a video showing the death-by-burning of downed Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh at the hands of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). And it shows how the sickening footage, widely shared and broadly reviled in China, has re-ignited controversy about who’s to blame for the rise of IS, and what — if anything — China should do about it.
On Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, users are proving divided about whom to blame in the wake of the latest video. Many continued to echo longstanding mainstream media criticism of the United States; Obama “continues to swagger and fire off his mouth,” wrote one user, while another saw Western “meddling” and U.S. willingness to “spill blood to benefit economically” in the Middle East at the root of the problem. But many pushed back. One commenter wrote, “Today it’s a French person, or a Japanese person, or a Jordanian person; and tomorrow? Is it human life that matters, or giving the U.S. a ‘headache?’ If we too are to protect world peace, this is also a headache for us.” Another asked, “If one day ISIS kidnaps one of our own, what will we do? Besides angry online diatribes, we’re just sitting here waiting for a tragedy.”
Few comments urged action so directly. Rather than calling on China’s government to help, many web users repeatedly called on the U.N. or the world community to mobilize. In some popular comments, like the statement that “we must work together to lay siege” to IS, or the insistence that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (which include China) “strike hard,” the critique of government inaction was thinly veiled. Others seemed ignorant of ongoing efforts; one popular statement called on “the world to organize a coalition army” to attack IS, when in fact such a coalition was already organized in September 2014, comprising dozens of countries, with the U.S. at the helm. (China has offered help, but independent of that coalition, and it’s not clear whether it has followed up.)
It’s hard to know exactly what China’s government thinks its next move should be. Authorities there were quick to condemn IS after the recent revelation: At a Feb. 4 press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei said China “opposes terrorism in all its forms,” language substantively identical to what the ministry proffered on Feb. 2 in response to the recorded beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. A statement by the U.N. Security Council, of which China again is a permanent member, likewise condemned the violence. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has said nothing publicly.
One indication of the Chinese government’s stance comes via a strident Feb. 4 editorial on the website of powerful, state-run China Central Television. Written by a Chinese Middle East scholar named Li Shaoxing on the network’s behalf, the piece makes light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement that the world “must stand united” against IS, writing, “The world has already been united without precedent in its consensus to strike at and eliminate the organization. It’s not going to become even more ‘firmly united’ after al-Kasasbeh or another country’s innocent is killed. The problem now isn’t unity or consensus, it’s effective action.” Li continued, “Some have said that ISIS is the most powerful terrorist organization in the world, with 30,000 soldiers and $2 billion, but this means nothing compared to U.S. military power. So the problem isn’t power [either] … it’s the resolve.” Li added that the U.S. lack of will “inevitably causes one to think,” concluding darkly, “it’s certain that before the United States truly determines to eliminate ISIS, the circumstances of another Japanese hostage or another Jordanian pilot being killed will occur again.” The article did not mention China once.
The notion that China could eventually become involved, either by dint of its rising-power status or a tragic run-in with IS, is unlikely, but not outlandish. In August 2014, Chinese media began to murmur about the possibility that IS might target Chinese territory, particularly the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang. In July 2014, purported IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi named China as one of those places where “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized.” But Chinese authorities generally seek to avoid more than token involvement in armed conflicts abroad, and remain chary of inflaming anti-Muslim tensions given regular violence between Uighurs, a majority Muslim ethnic group that mostly live in Xinjiang, and the majority Han. The United States, which has not issued an official public statement calling on China to join the coalition, likely wishes to avoid lending China cover for further human rights infringements in Xinjiang, often carried out under the banner of anti-terrorism.
That delicate equation could change entirely were an IS video involving a Chinese person to enter the country’s hyperactive social media. It could be an assailant — some reports estimate that 300 Chinese citizens have already gone abroad to fight with IS — or a victim. In the latter case, public pressure for China to do more to combat IS could become overwhelming, combining sorrow, nationalism, and longstanding internal frustration that China’s military isn’t more assertive. China’s government, after all, is a favorite target of Internet users along with foreign foes. One user darkly took aim at both: “Let’s hope when they catch a Chinese person, it’s a corrupt official!” The bureaucrat would be so rich, the user wrote, he could afford any ransom and “save himself.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Yiqin Fu, and Shujie Leng contributed research.