U.S. Ambassador's Death Draws Cheers and an Ugly Rumor on China's Web

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A number of Chinese web users greeted the diplomat's killing in Libya as a just blow against American "hegemony."

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U.S. Ambassador Stevens gestures during talks with representatives of the African Union in Benghazi, in April of 2011. (Reuters)

As with the rest of the world, few Chinese knew what J. Christopher Stevens, the former U.S. ambassador to Libya, looked like before his violent death in Benghazi, Libya, made international news on September 11. Yet within just 24 hours of the tragedy, a misidentified photo of Stevens had circulated wildly on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, turning a martyr of peace into a ready symbol of American foreign policy. As waves of unrest from the Middle East convulsed the world, rumors and inflammatory remarks also flared on China's Internet, revealing not only rising anti-American sentiments in the country but also earnest anxieties about China's diplomatic challenges abroad.

The wheel of rumor first started spinning on September 12, when @旅法杂谈 posted a picture of a man raising his thumb over a battered corpse whom he identified as Muammar Qaddafi. "There is an old African saying," the netizen wrote. "'Those who haven't made it to the other shore should not laugh at those who have already drowned.'" On October 20, 2011, Qaddafi, the son of Africa, was brutally killed. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at his side, gave a thumbs-up and cheered. 321 days later, however, his own corpse was pushed and dragged along the streets of Benghazi."

Among Chinese netizens, however, the African axiom did not register. Instead, their own cheering quickly began. Though the photo showed, even at its highest resolution, only a grainy portrait of a man whose angular features loosely resembled that of Stevens, most people believed that they had found the epitome of American hegemony. Within 24 hours, the post was forwarded more than 3,000 times on Weibo with more than 800 comments. The vindictive tone was unmistakable.

"I was just enjoying the news about the attack on the U.S. ambassador to Libya," wrote @阳光高杨, who self-identified as the editor-in-chief of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Journal (人民政协报). "I hope these kind of attacks directed at American officials engulf the world as soon as possible! They could adjust their sights upward a bit. For example: the U.S. President, Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, and every cabinet secretary! All people opposed to the Americans and opposed to the Japanese should take action!"

The comment was quickly removed from Sina Weibo as hate speech, but its residues, as well as the anti-American sentiments that had inspired the comment, lingered and spread. For some, gloating took the form of self-congratulation. "It turned out that ancient Chinese were the smartest," wrote @HR帝-李晶. "Life is not without final judgment. It's only a matter of time!"

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Journalist Andrew Malone over Qaddafi's corpse. (Weibo)

There were, to be sure, rational voices. Amid Weibo's smug and strident climate, many netizens, like @安普若-安校长, pointed out that the man in question was not Stevens, but was a journalist from the Daily Mail in Britain, Andrew Malone, who had posted photographs of his inspection of Qaddafi's corpse online. In another post, @欢欢在法国, a netizen in France, quickly traced the photo's misuse to a French news blog. The owner of the blog, Allain Jules, first accused Stevens of posing as a crouching figure over a battered Qaddafi. On his blog, Jules claimed that he was a former researcher on Medieval History at the University of Paris IV, Sorbonne and a student at IRIS (Institute of International and Strategic Relations.)

Despite efforts to bust the myth, the damage was already done. By September 13, the Chinese Internet was aflame. Keywords such as "American Ambassador" ("美国大使") had ascended to Sina Weibo's top-10 list. Joining strident anti-American discourses flaring across the globe, many Chinese netizens took advantage of the opportunity to vent their pent-up anger against the United States and its foreign policy.

"The violent assault against a U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats must be condemned, but it was also a direct result of U.S. Foreign policy," wrote @博联社马晓霖. "The Libyan War, created by the U.S. government, left behind a disintegrating society where rebels sliced up the country and ruled in violence. In retrospect, it was the U.S. assault against Islamic civilization--or in defense of Islamic freedom, as they called it--that sowed today's seeds of violence. The tragic death of four diplomats was America's own doing."

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Yi Lu is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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