Towering time

China and the anniversary of September 11

Towering time

A decade on, Chinese remember

When CCTV news anchor Bai Yansong went to visit the Newseum, a museum in Washington that collects the world’s major national newspapers, he had a sudden shock. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, almost every newspaper around the world had headlined the event. Except for China, where the People’s Daily ran a story about a tour made by Zhu Rongji, then premier.

In fact, the majority of Chinese viewers never even saw footage of the terrorist attacks that day.

That’s because CCTV elected not to run the story that night. Only Phoenix TV, the satellite station, reported the event, to an audience of about 150 million.

Shortly before the attack on the World Trade Center, Sino-US relations had taken a turn for the worse. A collision between an American surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter off the Chinese coast had quickened the diplomatic pulse in April the same year, and George W Bush had labelled China “a strategic competitor”. He also pledged to do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan.

So perhaps it should come as less of a surprise that some Chinese were soon expressing pleasure at America’s misfortune.

Plenty of netizens posted messages suggesting that the US deserved it.

“When my teacher told us [that the 9/11 attacks had happened], all the students were shocked. Everyone was silent at first, but then some people in the class started cheering, saying that the US deserved what it got for putting pressure on other [countries],” one netizen guiltily recalled last week on weibo.

Ning Caishen, a well-known playwright, also admits to being one of those who celebrated.

“Ten years ago today, I was in Beijing and saw on TV the first jet hit the first tower. I was so excited and my heart leapt with joy. Then the next plane hit the second building, and I couldn’t even contain myself,” Ning wrote last weekend.

“I prayed it would hasten the collapse of the two buildings, and hoped that the Pentagon, the Statue of Liberty, the White House and all the US would go with them.”

Like many others, Ning now expresses regret for his response. Sina journalist Quan Jing was similarly reflective: “We should think about how many of us reacted to the attacks with schadenfreude. Are we guilty of too much nationalism and not enough humanism?”

Of course, there were some who can look back on their reactions without such shame. Pan Shiyi, perhaps China’s most high-profile real estate developer, was so shocked by the terrorist atrocity that he rallied friends and arranged a public memorial.

However, even that didn’t go well. Bizarrely it was considered a subversive act and he was taken away by the police for questioning (his wife, Zhang Xin recalled this incident on her Sina Weibo).

Newspaper columnists have also been pondering the September 11 attacks from a different perspective: their impact on Sino-US relations. The mood would likely have turned much more hostile, says Thomas Friedman, a columnist at the New York Times. Instead, in the aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration set aside ideological differences and sought common purpose in pursuit of a new priority – the War on Terror.

“The attacks put America and China on the same side of a new divide between the world of order and the world of disorder…the fact that tensions didn’t increase was a big geopolitical dog that didn’t bark,” says Friedman.

Some also say that September 11 has an important place in China’s subsequent ascent. The Bush administration’s response was to focus its attention on the Middle East, and China made the most of that time to make new friends, and score new energy and commodity contracts, says Forbes China magazine.

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