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

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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.?"

Murong Xuecun (@韩志国), an acclaimed writer, voiced a theory as to the disparate treatment: "China and the U.S. had campus tragedies at the same time; the relevant organs issued orders prohibiting reportage on the scandal at home. Therefore, with much fanfare, every newspaper and television station began to report on the U.S. massacre, with retrospectives, summaries, analyses, finally saying together in one voice: Look at this evil capitalism!"

Web users appeared to offer competing, if equally cynical, interpretations for why Chinese officialdom was so tight-lipped about the Guangshan attack. Many agreed that officials may have downplayed domestic news because they were interested in "protecting their rice bowls" than getting at the truth. @ 路过月亮的石头 wrote, "American officials can only remain in their positions by facing this matter; Chinese leaders can only keep their posts by avoiding it!"

Some commenters perceived an implicit, high-level calculation of the relative value of an American and Chinese child. @ 3颗豆 ventured a guess at the media's strategy: "It seems they are trying to say: Look, look! This is the price of freedom. I say: Look how little I must be worth." @党好啊 looked at the relative wealth of the two schools, writing, "The American school may have a future U.S. President in it; that school in Guangshan probably doesn't even have a county boss." Indeed, @ 无为之路通罗马 echoed a widely-held sentiment, writing that the disparate treatment occurred "because the high leaders' sons and daughters are all in the United States."

It did not help that China's Central government did not take the symbolic steps to comfort their people, steps that an American citizen might consider almost de rigeur. In one widely-shared post, legal scholar Xu posted a picture of the two nations' flags flaying at half-mast-but for different reasons. He wrote: "Above: American flags flying at half-mast in honor of the victims of the Connecticut school massacre. Below: Chinese flag flying at half mast in honor of recently deceased [Cambodian king Norodom] Sihanouk." The implication was clear: Chinese officialdom cares more for the life of a foreign dignitary than for its own people.

Weibo, Change Agent

The online criticism seemed to have an effect. By December 17, searches on Baidu for mention of the Guangshan attack yielded over 200 additional stories, with mentions of the Newtown tragedy declining from December 16. (Results vary depending upon the precise terms searched.) After leaving the front pages of news websites such as Sina, Netease, and Phoenix, news of the knife attack re-appeared on their respective front pages.

While the motive for the heightened domestic coverage is impossible to verify, it seems likely that outcry on Weibo played a role. In a nation where mainstream media is often viewed with deep suspicion, Weibo has increasingly come to supplant other outlets as the most trusted source for breaking information. Indeed, starved of official pronouncements, mainstream reportage on the knife attack often cited Weibo as a source, treating the platform as a de facto news wire.

Lighting a Candle

But for many, the Newtown tragedy was simply a time to send notes of condolence. While China's mainstream media appeared to discredit itself with its seeming rush to report on Newtown and ignore Guangshan, there is no denying the comparative severity of the Newtown attack. While 22 Chinese children were hurt and traumatized, their stab wounds do not appear to be fatal.

Weibo users seemed to grasp the depth of the Newtown tragedy. In one post shared over 23,000 times, Xue Yong (@ 薛涌教育链接), a professor at Suffolk University in Boston, posted this image of grief:

RTR3BKZQ-615.jpgAdrees Latif/Reuters

He wrote:

"I will never forget this picture as long as I live; I can't help but cry every time I look at it. The New York Times reported that after the incident, parents were frantically waiting outside the school for their children. The children came out one by one and their parents took them away. There were fewer and fewer parents left waiting. The parents who remained at the end were led by police to a room, where they were informed that their children were not there anymore. Immediately thereafter, their cries could be heard from far away. [Tear] [Tear] [Candle] [Candle]"

Professor Xue did not respond to a request for comment, but Web users evinced a sorrow that transcended family and political boundaries.

User @Agapezero-亚嘉泊女性 wrote, "This picture helps me feel the deep sorrow that they bear! R.I.P. Death always reminds us to treasure what we have!" @专科大学 wrote, "Only now do I understand, human societies around the world are the same: They all feel emotions." @手机用户2954796893 put his anti-Americanism aside: "Although I don't like the yankees, their children are innocent. Ai! This crazy world doesn't need a doomsday; people's insanity is enough to destroy everything."

@黄天立123's comment looked both outward and inward, speaking to grieving American parents while also giving voice to disaffected Chinese: "Your pain is now carved on everyone's hearts. I wish the children happiness in heaven. As to our [attacked] children-as of today, officials have not even given their names. For [the sake of] Chinese children, I hope heaven is not 'socialist with Chinese characteristics.'"


This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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