Did Beijing Tell the Press Not to Cover China's Own School Attack?

If so, Web users in the People's Republic aren't taking the government's attempt at distraction lying down.

RTR35BR4-615.jpgDarley Shen/Reuters

Tragedy can strike anywhere. Mere hours before the horrific shooting at an American school in Newtown, Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including 20 children, a horrific school attack also happened in China. At an elementary school in a village in Guangshan county, part of Henan province in Central China, a 36-year-old man named Min Yongjun (in some cases mistakenly identified as Min Yingjun) attacked the school with a knife, wounding 22 children and one adult.

On Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging platform, news of the two tragedies hit hard. The third-most discussed topic on the platform was the sad coincidence of the two events on two sides of the globe. Titled "Save Our Children," the discussion thread had garnered over 6.4 million comments as of this writing.

With the two incidents' near-simultaneity and the U.S. and China's positions on the world stage, comparisons between the two were inevitable. Some respected American journalists felt that the U.S. was the worse for the contrast. In an article at The Atlantic, James Fallows wrote that the contrast illustrates that "guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily."

But given its often raucous, politically incorrect, sometimes stridently nationalist tone, China's Internet evinced surprisingly little schaudenfreude, or even well-meaning criticism of the United States. Although critiques of American society and calls for greater gun control were certainly evident, such comments were relatively rare. One web user wrote that "sometimes gun control has its benefits," but another wrote, "It's a good thing China prohibits guns; otherwise it would be much more dangerous than the U.S.!"

Tragedy and Frustration

Instead, Web users seemed most interested in questioning Chinese authority. Particularly vexing to observers was mainstream media's following evident marching orders to downplay the Chinese tragedy in service of emphasizing the Newtown massacre, followed by local Guangshan government's unwillingness to cooperate with an increasingly inquisitive press.

On state-run China Central Television (CCTV), the December 14 broadcast led with news of the Newtown massacre, despite CCTV's tradition of reporting domestic news before international news. On December 16, U.S. time, a news search for the Guangshan attack on Baidu, China's most popular search engine, yielded about 400 results, in contrast with over 2,020 results covering the Newtown massacre.

Even reporters trying their best have been stymied. China's state-run news wire, Xinhua, has grown evidently frustrated with Guangshan officials for following what appears to be a gag order. Incredibly, days after the occurrence of the Guangshan knife attack, reporters still do not know the names of the children attacked.

Xinhua reporters seeking further information have been left in the lurch. Legal scholar Xu Xin (@ 徐昕) wrote:

"Yesterday afternoon, CCTV's news broadcast [ran this] headline: Chinese [Communist Party] Chairman [Xi Jinping] sent his condolences to U.S. President Obama over the American campus shooting. Today, Xinhua news stated: After publishing news of the Chinese Guangshan campus tragedy on its official website on the 14th, [authorities] pulled the announcement and cancelled a press conference originally planned for the 15th. There's been no word for two days! On the 15th, the reporter found the County [government] office. The one worker there found an excuse to leave and didn't return, while the reporter waited pointlessly for two hours in this poor county's 'dignified' government office."

Xinhua news also posted on its own Weibo account (@新华视点) that "a reporter was in the county to conduct interviews; the village cadre was not at home [to be interviewed] due to a private matter, and workers at the education bureau were in their office playing games. When the reporter asked them whether [speculation] that the suspect had a mental illness was correct, a leader affiliated with the village [Communist Party] committee said, 'What is the point of talking about this?'"

An Unflattering Contrast

To @花生豆不逗, the contrast could not have been clearer: "From an ocean away, as soon as the American shooting occurred we speedily learned the number of dead and the whereabouts of the killer. In our own country, we can't hear anything about [the Guangshan attack]. American children died, the President cried; [let's say that was just] a show, the Chinese children don't even get that!"

Han Zhiguo (@韩志国), an economist with a gift for common talk once banned from Weibo for his often-strident posts, wrote:

"In an instant, information about the deadly gun attack in an American school that claimed 28 victims blanketed Chinese media. The majority was headline news. On the same day, there was a campus attack in Henan province's Guangshan county, in which 22 students were injured with lacerations, with seven seriously injured enough to be sent to the hospital. Mainstream media seemed deaf and dumb to it; you could only find information about it on Weibo. Was mainstream media's differing attitudes [toward the two incidents] because Chinese children's lives aren't valuable?"

Han's complaint quickly became one of them most discussed on the Weibo platform, with over 138,000 re-posts and 19,000 comments as of this writing.

Weibo users could not help but agree, siding with Han and vociferously rejecting the mainstream media's implicit interpretation of the contrasting events.

Many felt the dueling coverage was part of a pattern, with Chinese media "avoiding scandals at home, putting all of their effort into publicizing scandals abroad." @谭孟子 angrily wrote, "Chinese media always revolves around this theme: Chinese people are happy, and people in every other country in the world are living in dire straits. ... Why is the Chinese media not focusing on the destinies of our own people with the same enthusiasm they are showing toward the news out of the U.S.?"

Presented by

David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that focuses on China and Chinese sentiment. He is an Atlantic correspondent, Associate Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society.

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