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Foreign Policy

A Blunder in US Public Diplomacy

Mar 08 , 2014

On March 1st, in a shocking terrorist attack, eight knife-wielding terrorists slashed and stabbed at innocent civilians at the Kunming Railway station in southeast China’s Yunnan Province, leaving twenty-nine dead and more than one hundred injured. Terrorized victims’ memories and photos of the scenes showed how deadly the attack had been and the strong impacts it imposed on the whole nation. A quick response was seen on the Internet, beginning with Chinese netizens’ condolences to the victims and strong condemnations of the attackers on Weibo and Wechat, followed by tips on how to escape from a terrorist attack and warnings against paranoia and alienation towards a certain ethnic group arising from indignation at individual cases. In addition, there were discussions on the central government’s Xinjiang policy and the lessons and experience learned from the attack. 

Shao Yuqun

However, as foreign media released their coverage of the attack, Chinese netizens’ response became filled with anger at the United States. First, the CNN headlined its report on the attack as “Knife-wielding ‘terrorists’ kill 29, injure 130 at China train station”. Many Chinese were angry at the quotation marks on “terrorists”, believing that was watering down the terrorists’ brutality and twisting the real truth of the case, which actually betrayed the U.S. media’s prejudice, hypocrisy and double-standard. They even questioned the journalistic objectivity and impartiality long advocated and boasted of by the American press as CNN remained so suspicious about the nature of the tragedy, which was so clear to all. On March 2nd, the U.S. Embassy at Beijing wrote on its own Weibo and Wechat the following statement in Chinese. “The United States condemns this terrible and senseless violent act in Kunming. We express our condolences to the families of the dead and all that have been victimized by the tragedy.” Once again, many Chinese netizens questioned the U.S. position, noticing the words “senseless violent act”. They asked why U.S. embassy had deliberately avoided the words “terrorist attack”, why some US politicians, and the media, had kept regular contacts with representatives of separatist forces plotting for Xinjiang independence and Tibet independence, and why the Americans, who were once the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, should have held such double standards when seeing others suffering from terrorist attack.        

Microblogs on Weibo and Wechat serve as an important component of U.S. public diplomacy in China, aiming at expressing U.S. government’s positions and opinions to win popularity with the ordinary Chinese. But in this case, this strategy seems counterproductive as far as the public reaction is concerned. Why did the Embassy’s statement arouse such widespread hard feelings towards US? Here are the reasons. 

First, the statement stood against the common sense and psychology of most Chinese. The online sentiments showed that ordinary Chinese citizens oppose any assaults against innocent civilians, call for a secure living environment and strongly support the government’s determination to severely punish the perpetrators. The U.S. embassy’s attitude showed that it did not fully agree with the Chinese government’s explanation of the case and remained cold and detached about the nature of the tragedy, and failed to feel the anger and sufferings of the Chinese people. That attitude angered the Chinese public.  Following the American embassy’s statement, one comment on Chinese Weibo said, in a somewhat extreme yet straightforward manner, “If you (Americans) call the 3/01 tragedy a senseless violent act, then New York’s 9/11 was no more than a regrettable traffic accident!”

Second, the Chinese public takes the statement as a proof that the U.S. holds double standards on definition and treatment of terrorism. U.S. Officials criticized China’s policy towards ethnic groups and religions after the riots in Xinjiang’s Shanshan on June 26th and the bombing attack against civilians and tourists at the Goldwater Bridge in Tiananmen Square on October 28th. The Kunming case was more terrible as it happened at such a crowded place as the railway station, imposing deeper traumatizing impact on the public Yet, obviously some Americans are sticking to their constant double standards on the issue of terrorism, which naturally caused indignation of the Chinese public. As someone commented on Weibo,“For every nation or region, there’s a choice to make, either you are standing with us, or with the terrorists. This is excerpted from President George. W. Bush’s speech after the 9/11, and now we return it to you Americans”(@星小目).In fact, a number of Chinese netizens compared U.S. embassy’s position with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message of condolences to Chinese President Xi Jinping after the Kunming attack: “Vladimir Putin sent a message of condolences to President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in connection with the terrorist attack in Kunming, which resulted in numerous casualties. The Russian President strongly condemned this heinous crime and expressed his commitment to continue comprehensive cooperation with China in the fight against terrorism. Mr Putin conveyed his sympathy and support to the families and friends of the victims and wishes of a speedy recovery to the injured.” (quoted from China’s media)

Third, the statement exposed the superpower’s arrogance. The superpower always likes to point its finger at other nations’ internal affairs. Yet the U.S. itself has not kept a clean record on counter-terrorism, human rights, and religious affairs. So its criticism and suspicion of the Chinese government policy is questionable in legitimacy and  rationality.  Moreover, some people in the U.S. seem to have failed to catch up with the changes in China. As a rapidly rising country, China is actively interacting with the rest of the world, and ordinary Chinese citizens’ mentality has also changed a lot in dealing with other nations, the U.S. included. On the Xinjiang case, most Chinese believe that Xinjiang separatist forces came into being due to  complicated historical, domestic and foreign factors. They strongly support the  government to crack down on terrorists and separatists. Meanwhile, some people are also calling for the need to improve the governance in Xinjiang Autonomous Region so as to remove the breeding ground for separatism and better achieve unity and harmony among all ethnic groups as well as social stability. If the U.S. wants to see a stable China, they can help and advise in a goodwill. However, the frequent contacts between Xinjiang separatists and the U.S. senior officials have raised doubts about this goodwill.      

On this case of Kunming terror attack, The U.S. government seems to have made a blunder. Something should be learned from it. US has been strong and smart in public diplomacy, but this time it failed to reach the Chinese public. For instance, they should learn how to convey their messages more accurately to the Chinese audience, especially when it comes across the language translation. It is said to be true that US administration has also used “senseless violence” to describe terror attacks in some other cases. However, due to the constant and unreasonable criticism and suspicion of the Chinese government policy in ethnic regions, deliberately avoiding using the words terrorism in describing the case can only make Chinese question the US real intention. The Kunming attack was clearly a terrorist attack against innocent civilians and one should just call a spade a spade.

 More importantly, the US should learn to adopt an attitude of mutual respect. The Chinese leadership hopes to build a new type of relations with the U.S. characterized by “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation”, which is accepted by the U.S. leadership who promises to move in the same direction with its Chinese counterpart. Nevertheless, as a longstanding superpower, the U.S. often fails to put itself in others’ shoes and respect others’ national interests and opinions. It cannot stop teaching others what to do or making sarcastic comments on others’ internal affairs, instead of discarding prejudice and looking more objectively at others’ development achievements and social progress. U.S. acknowledgment of China’s status as an emerging big power should not stay at the verbal level, but by real actions. In an online article titled “Zero Tolerance for Terrorism and its Terrorist Adherents” on Global Times, the author pointed out that “the recklessness of terrorists in China is largely the combined result of the longtime permissive attitude of the international media and support and training from overseas terrorist groups and even foreign governments. It is time for governments across the world to clarify their positions. ‘You are either with us, or against us!’ The article reflected, to a certain degree, the Chinese mentality as a big power with global influence. China has become a global power and deserves others’ due respect. In the face of such a global power, what the United States should do is not to sensationalize China’s rise as “a threat”, but think carefully how to get along with it on an equal footing.   

Jennifer Psaki, spokeswoman for U.S. State Department finally acknowledged the terrorist nature of the Kunming attack on March 4th as she said “Based on the information reported by the Chinese media, this appears to be an act of terrorism targeting random members of the public, so we are calling this an act of terrorism”. Nonetheless, this delayed acknowledgment cannot undo the blunder. 

Shao Yuqun, Executive Director of the Center for American Studies, SIIS.
JI Yixin, Research Fellow at the Institute for Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau Studies, SIIS.

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