Over the past 10 days, two
horrific attacks have shaken China -- but Chinese Internet censors seem
interested in only one. On Oct. 28, five people died and dozens were injured when an SUV plowed into
a crowd right near Tiananmen, the massive public square in the heart of Beijing.
Authorities called it an act of terrorism by Uighurs, an ethnic minority mostly located in the
western Chinese region of Xinjiang, and censors clamped
down hard, scrubbing virtually any mention of the incident from online
Then, on Nov. 6, an unknown perpetrator, or perpetrators, detonated what appear
to have been home-made bombs outside a government building in Taiyuan, the
capital of northern Shanxi province, killing one and injuring eight. That bombing, however, triggered a
flurry of candid, often vitriolic online discussion lauding violence against
the government and speculation about possible links to the first attack. Mei Xinyu, an economist and columnist, wrote on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, that the
explosion "was rather expertly done, probably the work of a terrorist
organization." Another user invoked a recent U.S. tragedy:
"Was this a terrorist attack like the one in Tiananmen? I am beginning to
get a taste of how the evil Americans felt after 9/11 happened." Yet the censors appear to have done
little to halt the discussion.
What does the divergent
reaction say about what the Chinese government may be thinking? It's
almost impossible to divine the thoughts and motivations of an apparatus so opaque
and multifarious. But the stark contrast
between the reactions of the propaganda apparatus to the two incidents suggests
Chinese authorities probably do not think Uighurs were responsible for the
Taiyuan incident. In the case of the Tiananmen attack, Beijing worried
anti-Uighur chatter could go viral, potentially raising ethnic tensions that
have turned deadly in the past. With Taiyuan, however,
censors have allowed thousands of comments to flow, even those speculating about Uighur involvement. If the authorities believed the two attacks were
connected, they would have subjected chatter about the Taiyuan bombing to a
much stricter fate.
That doesn't mean information
has flowed freely. Local papers in and around Taiyuan did not carry front-page
coverage of the news in their Nov. 7 editions. But when Weibo users mocked these omissions, their
comments made it onto the Chinese social web -- and stayed there.