Kunming coverage: Why were people angry

On March 1,  29 were killed and 143 were injured at a train station in southwestern China. A group of knife-wielding radicals, members of Abdurehim Kurban gang, were responsible for the terrorist attack, according to Chinese authority cited in Xinhua’s recent report.

In the same article, the news agency cited policeman’s recount of the  event-

“After all five attackers were shot down, the first one stood up again and threw a knife at me, I tilted my head and avoided the weapon,” [policeman Zhang Liyuan] said.

“I had to shoot them down, because if I didn’t, I’m sure the attackers would have harmed more civilians[…],” he said.

(My personal opinion, the full description was as close to an action movie scene as it can get. )

As news spread on Chinese social media, users noticed the overwhelmingly detached tone in western media reports on the same subject.

The first post I saw on Renren (a Facebook-like platform) was actually a screenshot of various German media coverage.


In the caption, whoever re-posted this image commented that media and press was never independent. Then, he/she compared the three media outlets and their “bias” in reporting on the attack. All of them used quotation marks around the word “terrorist” and focused on explaining ethnic conflict between Uighur (Muslim minority in Xinjiang province) and Han (majority ethnicity) as background information.

Similar approach could be found on these sources as well-

China’s official Xinhua News Agency did not indicate who might have been responsible for the late-evening attack at the Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan province, but said authorities considered it to be ‘‘an organized, premeditated, violent terrorist attack.’’ (March 2, Associated Press on The Boston Globe)

U.N. Security Council Condemns ‘Terrorist Attack’ in Kunming (March 3, Sinosphere, The New York Times)

I also tweeted an AP update that the Globe syndicated yesterday-

As more news sites started to pick up the story, much hostility built up among Chinese audience towards all western media.

A popular blog post on Renren viewed more than 150,000 times analyzes the intention behind the subtle detached tone of foreign coverage and the lack of fairness in reporting in general. The author also criticizes Chinese nationals who believe in western media are free and fair.

The blog post cites a People.cn infographic that have been syndicated on major websites and shared thousands of times on Weibo (a Twitter-like platform with extra features) on March 3. 


This graphic compared the Kunming attack and 2013 London attack in terms of wording in BBC, The Telegraph, CNN and Fox News. The editorial comment on the illustration is that similar in nature, two events were reported differently in tone. The editor’s note also hints that foreign media are intentionally “turning a blind eye.”

Same sentiment soon becomes a trending topic on Chinese media, formal and informal.

Western media coverage of Kunming’s terror attack shows sheer mendacity and heartlessness (March 4, People’s Daily)

Journalists see bias in Western coverage (March 5, China News Service)

IN MY OPINION… (nothing journalistic about this)

While public grievances is somewhat justified in this case, there are some definitions that need to be cleared before diving into the discussion of the divided opinion on Kunming attack’s media coverage.

Terrorism typically is referred to act of violence directed at civilians to create fear with an end goal of achieving political goals. In this case, terrorism was first used by Chinese authority cited in state media.

As the direct target of this attack, Chinese (especially Han ethnic Chinese) could feel the immediate threat and see the use of the word “terror” appropriate. People died. Feelings were hurt.

I do believe that there is a lack of recognition of the fact that this event is probably one of the bloodiest crime against civilians in China for many years. BUT, the authority is perhaps — I mean they really are — also using the terror as a generalized term to delegitimize any “separatist” movement.

An NYT piece that came out earlier today said Chinese government was directing attention away from the actual ethnic tension. There was no reference to the ethnicity of the assailants, although everyone knows they are Uighur.

Social media has been a great platform to invoke emotions in China. With that said, public emotion could also be easily directed towards a widely acceptable version of expression, like the Renren blog post I quoted earlier. I doubt if anything substantial about ethnic conflict could even make it to an audience this big.

I saw on twitter today, photos of what might be happening on the ground in ethnic provinces in China. Although I cannot confirm the context, I do believe that there are legitimate concerns that the public should be worried about beyond mourning for the dead.

Photoed is a notice from a local police department, saying if anyone spot the suspects at large or anyone suspicious of Uighur or Tibetan ethnicity, report them. (This twitter user is an Tibetan activist under house arrest in Beijing, China)

Foreign journalists’ reservation in using the term terror could simply be explained by this tweet. The Chinese authority is recognized by them as a source of coercion as well. Using the word “terror” without this context is almost like siding with a regime that has also violated human rights against the people committed the crime in this case.

An interesting observation from this incident would be the lack of middle ground in terms of opinion on media in China. Social media behavior is interpreted in vastly different ways by nationals and foreign media. One reason could be the extensive censorship that made it impossible for anyone to articulate a different opinion in China. It also shows much hostility and perhaps bias in western coverage on matters related to China, since all voices from seems to be coming from directly from atop. It is easy to treat the authority and the people alike, although there might be enormous distinctions.

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