Last Wednesday – on the eve of the People’s Republic of China’s 66th anniversary – a series of parcel bombs went off in the southern city of Liuzhou. In total 10 people died and around 50 were injured, mainly government employees.
A local man who was killed in the blasts was identified as the bomber. His motivation, it seems, was an unaddressed gripe over the closure of his family’s quarry.
Such acts are not uncommon in China where bureaucracy moves slowly and it is hard to hold government officials to account. But this attack was bigger and more complex than any in recent years and despite government efforts to limit discussion of the event, it sparked several interesting debates online.
The first was: what is a terrorist?
People began asking this question because hours after the bombs went off, Liuzhou police announced they were treating the attack as a ‘criminal act’ and not ‘an act of terrorism’. Many then asked: what was the difference given this attack was clearly designed to hurt a lot of people?
Is terrorism defined by motivation, or perhaps ethnicity, or the location of the act, they asked? Or did the government avoid using the ‘terrorism’ designation simply to keep things calm ahead of the national holiday?
“The government should provide us with a definition of terrorism, I don’t see why putting dozens of bombs in the post isn’t an act of terror,” wrote one person on weibo. “How can they know this so soon? When did they have time to investigate?” asked another. And in a nod to the subjective nature of the term ‘terrorism’ one weibo user wrote: “Letting off firecrackers in Xinjiang is classified as ‘terrorism’. But a series of 17 blasts are not?”
The second debate to emerge from the incident was why coverage of the community centre shooting in Oregon on October 1st got more in-depth coverage than the Liuzhou incident.
“How can you publish nine photos of the Oregon shooting while only one of Liuzhou. You really should mind our own business first,” one frustrated netizen wrote on the Global Time website. “I thought we didn’t interfere in other countries’ affairs. Let’s see more coverage of our own tragedy,” wrote another.
Their observation – that coverage of Liuzhou was being curtailed – was later confirmed by two leaked censorship directives on the California-based website China Digital Times. “The media must not send reporters to cover the series of explosions that occurred in Liucheng county, Guangxi without permission, and must not set up special topic coverage. If covering the incident, use dispatches from sources such as Xinhua News Agency as the norm,” wrote the Central Propaganda Department.
“Regarding the explosions in Liucheng county, Liuzhou, Guangxi, websites nationwide may only use one picture taken from a long distance. All close-range photographs must be deleted without exception, including on Sina Weibo and WeChat. Please deal with this immediately,” the Cyberspace Administration said.
The third discussion prompted by the bombing was over public safety and access to explosives. (Initially it appeared that blaming China’s highly successful courier system could be the second casualty of the bombing but it later emerged that the bomber had paid random individuals to deliver the packages containing his bombs.)
The focus soon shifted to the ease with which the bomber could obtain explosive materials. As Reuters pointed out guns are hard to come by in China but bomb-making materials are relatively easy to acquire as a result the country’s sprawling mining and fireworks industries.
“If it is so easy to make bombs, how long till someone puts one on a plane?”asked one. “I am so glad our government controls the use of guns but maybe it is time to do the same with explosives,” wrote another
Reuters said the Liuzhou blast has exposed “a major gap in China’s huge security apparatus as the economy slows and anger grows over issues like graft and poor public services”.
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