China and the World

My enemy’s enemy

Fierce debate among Chinese over Osama’s death

Died this week in Abbottabad

Few would have predicted that Abbottabad would be become one of the world’s most newsworthy places in 2011.

But the announcement that Osama bin Laden was killed in the Pakistani city last Sunday abruptly changed that.

When President Obama announced the death of Al Qaeda’s leader, it was Monday lunchtime in China. But events in Abbottabad quickly displaced domestic affairs from the nation’s news agenda – a task made easier given it was a public holiday and lacking much worth reporting (rival news items: President Hu at an Airbus factory in Tianjin, and Premier Wen at a Beijing construction site for affordable housing – both part of a PR itinerary that Shanghai Daily billed as “a working holiday for China’s leaders”).

The following day, the nation’s newspapers readied their own coverage. They largely took their steer from Xinhua news agency which offered the ‘official line’ on the politically-charged event. It was good news for the peace of the world and a step forward in the fight against global terrorism, Xinhua proclaimed.

While echoing these sentiments, an editorial in the China Daily was a little punchier: “The Obama administration will no doubt use its success in hunting down bin Laden to build up confidence among US citizens and restore the US’ international credibility… and pave the way for his re-election next year.”

The greatest controversy (as usual) was sparked online. Zhang Xin, the director of CCTV’s military channel, wrote on his weibo (a Twitter-like service) that by forsaking wealth, challenging US power and then living like a savage “Osama bin Laden is the greatest hero ever in the Arab world”.

Zhang was immediately attacked by more ‘pro-Western’ Chinese, who called for him to resign his post with the state television channel. He deleted his original posting and added a new one insisting that he did not support terrorism.

But Zhang was not alone in interpreting events in a way that most Americans would find unappealing. Sima Pingbang, a microblogger with 140,000 readers, believed that Osama had died as a “martyr”, while Shikong Xiangyun lamented that the world had “lost an anti-American fighter” and said he’d be sending his condolences. Other bloggers referred to the former Al Qaeda founder as “Brother Laden”.

The Wall Street Journal also trawled the blogosphere, highlighting the caustic entry: “Excellent, now the only terrorist left is the United States.”

But the newspaper then added that it was not a comment that appeared to reflect “mainstream views”. More likely they represent the opinions of a vocal fenqing fringe sensitive to any sense of the Western world trying to hobble a rising China. WiC has written about these angry netizens before (see WiC9) and how their rants embarrass more level-headed citizens.

As blogger Wuyue Sanren noted: “A bunch of sucker patriots feel sorry about the death of Osama bin Laden, which proves that patriotism doesn’t require intelligence. Since Osama bin Laden also supported the East Turkistan forces to split our country, his death is good for China. Those patriots do not even know this. They just think ‘our enemy’s enemy is a friend’. Such people are the greatest evils to this country.”

Shocking though the fenqing view is it cannot be totally disregarded – it forms part of the enigma of Chinese public opinion. The fenqing’s aggression is borne of an inferiority complex that dates back to China’s ‘humiliation’ in the nineteenth century (when its sovereignty was impinged by the US and other Western powers which demanded treaty ports). This ‘shameful’ period still irks many Chinese.

In fact, perhaps the greatest danger this century faces is not bin Laden (whose malign influence peaked in 2001) but the possibility that fenqing factions are ever able to contest a democratic election and win power in Beijing. That’s a distant – and, yes, unlikely – prospect but US think tanks might add it to their worst case scenarios.


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