03 November 2013

This week in calling a spade a spade:

Alessandro Rippa in The Diplomat:
There is something profoundly disturbing about the way most Western media and Xinjiang scholars have reacted to the attack in Tiananmen Square last Monday. As has been widely reported, the attack left five people dead, two of whom were tourists, and 40 injured.

Shortly after the attack, in which a man with his wife and mother drove an SUV into a crowd of people and set it on fire, Chinese authorities identified the perpetrators as Uyghurs. Since then, Western experts have appeared in the media, attempting to shed some light on the tragic event...

What bothers me, in both analyses, is the facility with which the authors dismiss the attack itself. Paradoxically, as I was reading the pieces, I felt that they could have made the very same points without the attack even having taken place. What happened in Tiananmen, it seems assumed, is just another example of the repeated violence we have witnessed in recent years, ultimately rooted in Beijing’s disastrous policies in Xinjiang. But is this really the case? Isn’t Tiananmen a turning point?

What is hard to understand is why the attack in Tiananmen is rarely acknowledged as an act of terrorism. Granted, we don’t – and probably never will – have access to all the details, and yet I believe we have enough material to claim that the attack was clearly intended to be deadly. The place of the attack, moreover, certainly has major symbolic value as the political center of the PRC, but it is also packed with Chinese and foreign tourists at virtually all hours. It thus isn’t just politically charged, but also in the spotlight of international observers. I find it hard to believe that both these factors weren’t part of the attackers’ calculations.

Moreover, what generally makes terrorism so disturbing is the randomness of the victims. We are constantly reminded of this when something happens in Boston, London, Madrid or any other Western city. Media run stories on the victims, their backgrounds, and how they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why hasn’t this been the case with Monday’s attack in Beijing? I have lived in Beijing for years and I visited Tiananmen many times. This summer, for the first time, my parents visited China. I took them to Tiananmen, I’ve got a picture of them in the very same place where the two tourists died on Monday. I could have died, my parents could have died. My Beijing neighbor, my Chinese teacher, my best friend: all could have died in Monday’s attack.

Why is it so difficult, then, to call the attack what it is: terrorism? Why do scholars and journalists (see, for instance the BBC and NYT) seem more concerned about the weakness of China’s claims that the ETIM was involved in Monday’s attack, rather than in the tragedy of the attack itself?
I do agree with the author’s scepticism (to some extent) about the existence of ETIM as an organised movement, though I stand completely by my prior assertion that Räbiya Qadyr is, to use the technical term, a total douchebag. And I don’t want to come off as glib or jaded here, since these are certainly good questions to ask which don’t necessarily have easy or straightforward answers. But there does seem to be a distressing pattern which conspiracy theorists are likely to make hay of: our media don’t pull any punches when calling such acts terrorism when they happen on our soil, and for good reason. The Boston bombing was an act of terrorism, pure, simple and dastardly. Yet we must keep in mind that our media have a horrific blind spot when it comes to terrorism overseas. The Boston terrorists were Chechens, about whose political radicalism Russia’s government warned us well in advance. Prior to the Boston bombing, Americans - particularly of the neoconservative mindset - were likely to view the Chechens not as terrorists but as allies and freedom fighters. The designation of ‘terrorist’ as commonly used in Anglo-American news media, therefore, seems needlessly selective and political. Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, regardless of whether it is inflicted upon the civilian populace of nations whose governments we don’t happen to like at the moment.

This has been the case with China for a long time. The Uyghurs were considered the Tibetans with an unsung cause - even by yours truly at one point. (To be clear, I am far from saying now that the Uyghurs of Xinjiang do not have cause to be angry! The poverty and systemic prejudice are still points which the Chinese government must do far, far more to address.) But in the analysis we must never lose sight of the facts: five people are dead, the random victims of an attack targetted at a significant, symbolic hub of Chinese public life. And yet Western media are still placing the term ‘terrorism’ in this story inside scare-quotes, and are making sure to elicit as much scepticism of China’s government’s claims as it dares.

There are points where the hermeneutic of scepticism to which China-watchers are prone goes way, way too far, to the point where they come off as crazy or inhumane. I daresay that this is one of those points. Innocent people, including tourists, were killed. I would kindly advise China-watchers and ‘public intellectuals’ to stow the anti-CCP political crap for another day, and direct the outrage where it truly belongs. Just as we were all Bostonians then, and just as we were all New Yorkers twelve years ago, we should all be Beijingers now.

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