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

Some comments took on a less accusatory tone. "I guess elite media will soon publish glowing stories about the ambassador and his family's loss," wrote @汪海林, who suggested that U.S. hegemony was hardly exclusive to politics. "These stories will leave you sad, sympathetic, and of course, angry. There is truth in all this hype, to be sure, but for all the Libyans who perished in these conflicts, we will probably never read any sympathetic reports of them on such media. This is what 'the right to speech' (话语权) means."

On September 14, after an outpouring of anti-American comments over two days, Yahoo China, one of the country's major news portals, released a new issue of its online magazine, Focus (焦点关注), urging netizens to maintain rational discourse. "Refrain from gloating over U.S. Ambassador's death," reads the title page, which ended with a self-referential line: "Foreign embassies and consulates are extensions of a sovereign country, and diplomats are under amnesty from international conflicts--Chinese anti-Japanese protestors should keep this in mind, too." On Saturday, violent anti-Japanese demonstrations roiled throughout mainland China. Hundreds of protestors threw rocks and eggs at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, while smaller confrontations erupted in up to 40 Chinese cities.

But Yahoo China promptly undermined its own effort to promote good will. On top of the section page, Yahoo created a poll with a simple question: "How do you feel about the U.S. ambassador's violent death?" The results were unflattering. As of time of publication of this article, more than 3,000 people responded that the attacks were "karma," the result of the United States acting as the "world policeman." In contrast, only about 1,300 netizens believed the attack was an extremist event instigated by a few. Fewer than 400, or less than 10% of the total respondents, believed that it was a "tragic clash" between Islamic and Christian civilizations.

While their content was troubling, recent incendiary comments on Weibo suggested something deeper than mere anti-Americanism. The misleading photograph purporting to show Stevens was a kind of "wish rumor"--a rumor that begins primarily because those who sustain it wish it to be true. Chinese netizens have seemed more willing to fault the U.S. entirely for the crisis in the Middle East than to consider the complex origins of the recent violence. The picture, in this regard, helped to confirm the long-held Chinese assumption about American hegemony in the world.

On the other hand, such rumors thrived because they gave expression to some netizens' own anxieties about China's projection of its own power abroad. "The United States planted a new regime in Libya, and that very regime turned its back by killing the American ambassador. At the same time, in East Asia, U.S. foreign policy set off the Senkaku dispute," wrote @王育琨, who identified himself on Weibo as Director of Entrepreneurship Research Center at Peking University (北大企业家研究中心主任). "By pitting China against Japan, the Americans created an opportunity to bolster its role in the region. But the Americans outsmarted themselves: Taiwan and China are now in a united front, and all Chinese are now awakened with painful memories of the Japanese invasion!"

In today's increasingly volatile environment, Japan is hardly the only diplomatic challenge confronting the Chinese government. As China continues to expand its influence abroad, so grow its responsibilities. As confrontations between Chinese businesses in Africa and the local populations escalate, the recent assault against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya seems to provide a telling example of what could shadow China's presence abroad in future years. "From the day Qaddaffi's corpse was battered to the U.S. ambassador's death today, the Libyan people have been waiting for real democracy," wrote @Kayo_Yeung. "The people long oppressed under Qaddaffi were liberated from their dictator, but they were not liberated from their mindset. Without critical thinking, they are only puppets in power struggles." While rumors about Christopher Stevens served as handy vehicles for anti-foreign sentiment in the short run, China will need to sustain mounting pressure on its own diplomacy abroad once the cheering fades away.

This article originally appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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Yi Lu is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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