China and the World, Talking Point

A night of terror

How did the Chinese react to last week’s terrorist atrocity in Paris?

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is lit up in blue, white and red, the colors of the French flag, following the Paris attacks, in Shanghai

Showing solidarity: Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower is lit up in the colours of the French flag

Shortly after 9pm last Friday three member of the so-called Islamic State (IS) approached France’s National Stadium in Paris and blew themselves up.

A series of coordinated attacks on restaurants and a theatre followed, killing 132 and injuring more than 300. It was the worst attack on French soil since the Second World War.

The French President Francois Hollande responded by declaring a state of emergency and closing French borders. The attacks were an “act of war”, he said, and the French military launched airstrikes on IS-controlled towns in Syria the following day. The campaign continued this week.

What was the reaction in China?

On the one hand China reacted much as any other developed nation would. Its President Xi Jinping sent condolences to Hollande and the French people, condemning the attacks as an “act of barbarism”. Some Chinese citizens, who learnt of the attacks on Saturday morning, took time out of their day to deliver flowers to their nearest French Embassy or consulate. Others took to social media to express their disgust and sorrow, or simply light a virtual candle with the hashtag ‘Pray for Paris’.

The municipal authorities in Shanghai beamed the colours of the French flag onto the Oriental Pearl Tower in the city, as well as the image of Marianne – a symbol of French liberty – onto one of the buildings at the 2010 Expo park.

“We are all Paris today. My heart breaks for all the families touched by this brutal act of violence,” wrote one of the many thousands of weibo users to comment on the attacks.

On the other hand, the Chinese government didn’t wait long before commenting on the attacks in a way that seemed more designed to further its domestic agenda.

Within hours of the first bombs going off the Ministry of Public Security had posted a series of photos showing Chinese special forces carrying out a two month-long counter-terror operation in the restive western region of Xinjiang.

The images, showing men in helmets and balaclavas scaling mountains and breaking down doors, were accompanied by the message: “France’s Paris was hit by its worst terrorist attack in history, with hundreds dead and injured. On the other side of the world, police in China’s Xinjiang, after 56 days of pursuing and attacking, carried out a full attack on the terrorists and got great results.”

The thought of Chinese forces eliminating terrorists while Paris was still reeling from its own night of terror generated positive comment online.

“So proud. Feel safer,” wrote one netizen under the images of the security team.

The Xinjiang issue

With Xi and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Turkey for the G20 leaders summit, there was also a chance to speak about one of Beijing’s biggest bugbears – what it views as the international community’s “double standards” in respect to terrorism.

Xi paved the way saying: “China always opposes all forms of terrorism and is willing to work with France and the international community to enhance cooperation in security, fight terrorism and ensure safety of people in all countries.”

But later Wang drove the message home: “China is also a victim of terrorism, and cracking down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism.”

Some Western analysts dispute that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a coherent threat, pointing to the fact that most of the attacks carried out by disaffected Uighurs have involved knives or rudimentary homemade bombs. But the China Daily published an editorial this week rebutting such views, describing it as a “UN-listed terror group”. It wrote: “A crackdown on the group, which has carried out a series of deadly attacks in Chinese cities and towns over the years, should be an important part of the international efforts against terrorism. The strikes instigated by East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China and the terror attacks in Paris all bear the same characteristics. They targeted unarmed civilians and tried to kill and injure as many as possible.”

The newspaper then added: “Due to their deep-rooted bias and double standard, some Western countries and their media refuse to recognise the violence and attacks masterminded by the extremists in China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region as acts of terrorism. In their eyes, only terrorist attacks that happen on Western soil can be called acts of terrorism. The double standard toward terrorism is nothing but leniency for terrorists, and does a disservice to the fight against terror.”

The Sunday following the attacks the Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun announced China’s counter terrorism and general security measures would be intensified. More police would be deployed at railway stations, shopping malls, schools and airports, he said.

“The high-profile attack in Paris could be a pattern that may be repeated elsewhere, so China must be on high alert to combat terrorism,” Xinhua quoted a ministry statement as saying.

And yesterday Xi took a more combative tone when it emerged a Chinese hostage named Fan Jinghui had been executed by Islamic State in Syria. China’s leader condemned the killing and vowed to “bring to justice” those responsible. He reiterated that “China firmly opposes all kinds of terrorist ideology”.

What kind of things were people saying online?

As with other international incidents in the past, the netizen reaction often seemed to focus more on China than the event itself.

After the initial outpouring of shock and horror some netizens began complaining that similar tragedies in China and elsewhere in the world don’t get the same attention as those in Europe or the US.

“Why are we not praying for Beirut?” asked one weibo user, referencing the double-suicide bombing in the Lebanese city which killed 40 people the day before the Paris attacks. Another asked why people weren’t praying for the inhabitants of Lidong village in Zhejiang province, which was swept away by a mudslide hours before the explosions in Paris began.

Some netizens also took up the government line that China is a victim of double standards when it comes to terrorist attacks.

“The French media said our policy toward ethnic minorities was the reason for the Kunming station attack. We could say the same to them now,” was one such comments, recalling the knife attack of March 2014 in which 29 civilians died. The Chinese government blamed the deaths on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Another widely discussed theme was non-intervention abroad.

“Russia starts bombing in Syria and its plane is blown up, France starts bombing and its people are massacred. I hope China doesn’t get involved in this war,” wrote one weibo user. “This is what happens when you get involved in other peoples’ countries,” wrote another.

Will it stop the Chinese visiting France?

About 2.2 million Chinese visited France last year, making it the most popular long-haul destination for mainlanders. Following the attack online travel agency Ctrip said it would allow its clients to cancel their Paris tours. About 200 did so.

One Chinese citizen was mildly injured in the attacks but the other 1,300 Chinese tourists in the city were unhurt, Xinhua said.

In the wake of the IS shootings, Chinese embassy officials in France issued instructions to its nationals to stay inside and comply with police orders. But they didn’t issue an advisory notice that tourists should go home. In fact, when shops began to reopen, Chinese tourists were some of the first to return. This led Xinhua to run an article somewhat crassly entitled “Bravely shopping on”.

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