China's Annual September 11 Debate: Does America Deserve Our Sympathy?

By Liz Carter

Many Chinese are memorializing the tragedy today, but, as in past years, some are arguing that the U.S. had it coming.

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A Shanghai woman walks past a housing development ad featuring the World Trade Center. (AP)

Even in Chinese, "911" is shorthand for September 11 and the events that transpired 11 years ago today. Web users in China have taken to social media to mark the anniversary, some waxing philosophical about the passage of time and the elusiveness of world peace, others repeating the claim, often heard here, that the world's largest terrorist organization was, in fact, the United States. The tension between those in China wishing to commemorate the tragic attacks on the U.S., and those suspicious of offering America even the slightest sympathy, are a reminder of the wariness many Chinese feel about American power.

Just marking the date can be controversial here. Zhang Xin, a Chinese real estate tycoon with over 4 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, remarked simply, "It's September 11 again. Eleven years have passed." Reposted over 300 times in just 15 minutes, even this seemingly uncontroversial remark drew some criticism. "You should pay more attention to 9/18," remarked one netizen, referencing the Manchurian Incident of 1931, in which the Japanese army framed China for an act of sabotage in order to justify the invasion and occupation of the country.

This user was not alone in his disapproval. Remarked another of Zhang's followers, "What are you, American now?" Wrote another, "I used to enjoy following you, but it makes me uncomfortable to see you've posted about September 11 and not the Diaoyu Islands. I see you in a new light now."

Japan and China are embroiled in a diplomatic standoff over disputed islands, so they are on peoples' minds there. Still, it's interesting that many social media users in China referenced both September 11 and the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan) together. As Japan made an official bid to nationalize the island chain, the phrase "Diaoyu Islands" became the number one trending topic on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. When Chinese actor Wen Zhang, at a recent televised awards ceremony, declared, "The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!" his name became the second-most-searched term on China's top search engine, Baidu. To put the level of nationalist fervor in context, another trending phrase today was "F*ck Japan," which turned out to be the unlikely name of an actual person in China, according to Shanghaiist. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that, as the Diaoyu dispute has many Chinese feeling more nationalistic than usual, sympathy for the great American power across the Pacific appears to be running low.

Sina Weibo user @李道长 commented, "Truth be told, at that time [September 11] many Chinese people were pretty happy. They treated the day as a holiday, thinking to themselves, 'serves the American imperialists right.'" This is not necessarily as categorically true as the Weibo user suggested, but it was not so long ago that Americans were known as "imperialists" in China and condemned in official Party propaganda. At the same time, many memorialized the tragedy with a candle emoticon -- which was famously censored on the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown earlier this year. Others spoke of where they were when they heard the news, or what they remembered from that day.

Social media has brought the concept of global citizenship closer than ever to reality, softening national boundaries and identities. At the same time, as today's discussions are a reminder, these sites have made it easier than ever for nationalist sentiments to grow and take shape. Weibo chatter about September 11 included both mocking and gleeful nationalistic jabs as well as commentary about the universal nature of the tragedy.

Some comments were neither celebratory nor somber. Former head of Google in China, Kai-fu Lee, the 16th most followed person on Sina Weibo, remarked that September 11 was the day the Internet began to overtake television as a source for up-to-the-minute news. This particular bit of "9/11" commentary was reposted over 1,000 times. At least Chinese web users found one thing to agree on.

This post produced in partnership with Tea Leaf Nation.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/chinas-annual-september-11-debate-does-america-deserve-our-sympathy/262212/