Friday February 21, 2020


November 8, 2013

On November 6, a series of small blasts killed at least one person outside a provincial office of the communist party in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province.  According to Xinhua, China’s official news agency, the blasts, which occurred around 7:40am local time, appeared to have been caused by homemade bombs.  Eight people were injured and two cars damaged.  A post on the Shanxi Police’s official microblog reported that provincial leaders went to the scene immediately and that police are currently investigating the case.

The initial judgment is that the explosives were man-made.  According to Xinhua, police officials found steel balls, circuit boards, and similar explosive materials at the scene.  Additionally, explosives were hidden in roadside flowerbeds.  Photos posted on the microblog Sina Weibo showed car windows and tires damaged as a result of the blasts, as well as metal ball bearings.

This bombing comes at an already sensitive time in China.  Tensions are high in the wake of last week’s incident in Beijing when a car drove into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in what that authorities have called a terrorist attack incited by extremist Uyghurs from the western region of Xinjiang.

Online responses to the attacks highlight an important debate occurring within China between those who sympathize with anti-government violence and those who don’t.  This most recent attack has only further fueled the debate.  The top three searches on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, all relate to the explosion, and an announcement regarding the explosion on the local police’s official Weibo account has over 8,000 comments.  Among the hundreds of comments sampled, a surprisingly large number expressed sympathy for the perpetrators.  Some comments went even further, directly cheering on the violence.  Examples of angry, even violent rhetoric are plentiful: one user wrote, “No matter how bad it is, you should not hurt innocent people; you should blow up a few corrupt officials!”  Another one exclaimed, “Anyone who harms the masses is a terrorist! But harming an official is vengeance.”

Other users countered the wave of encouragement and support.  Many wrote that it was wrong to harm innocent people.  Some confronted the angry citizens saying, “I don’t know what is wrong with people who are praising this.” In a widely circulated comment, one user described a lunchroom argument with a colleague a few hours after the bombing.  The colleague was a fenqing, or angry youth, who seemed “extremely sympathetic” to the Taiyuan killer, who the youth thought might be someone oppressed by the government.  “I walked over to him,” the user wrote, “and dumped my lunch on his head.”  This example further illuminates the varied opinions and sentiments felt by the Chinese people regarding anti-government protest and violence.

The nature of the online debate surrounding the Taiyuan bombing recalls other instances where disgruntled citizens turned to violence and web users reacted.  A notable example of this is a 2008 attack against police officers in Shanghai.  An unemployed man, Yang Jia, killed six police officers in Shanghai in what some speculated was a response to earlier police brutality.  Additionally, on October 15 authorities sentenced a motorcycle taxi driver, Ji Zhongxing, to six years in prison after he set off a bomb at Beijing’s main airport to protest what he said was a 2005 police beating in the southern province of Guangdong.  In both cases, online opinion remains split over whether to treat the perpetrators as sympathetic, tragic figures, or as villains.

Some China scholars, such as Max Abrahms, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and a term member at the Council of Foreign Relations, interpret these acts of violence as a sign that China will experience an increase in terrorist violence over the next decade.  Abrahms argues that several long-term trends put China at risk for increased acts of terror.  Historically, Americans have been the preferred target of international terrorism, while China has been virtually spared.  This is because of the United States’ hegemonic position around the globe that tends to breed mistrust, resentment, and ultimately counterbalancing.  Professor Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, has found that foreign intervention is highly correlated with incurring suicide terrorist campaigns. With its comparatively non-interventionist foreign policy, China, historically, has elicited less passion and violence among foreign terrorist.

These trends however are changing.  The United States is retracting many of its international campaigns, and is, perhaps, entering a wave of isolationism.  Meanwhile, China is rapidly converting its rising economic power into ever-greater international leverage.  This does not come without costs.

Can the violence that China has experienced in the last several years, however, be characterized as acts of terror?  Analysts are questioning China’s claim that the October 27 deadly car crash in Tiananmen Square was the work of an al-Qaida-linked separatist group fighting in northwest China.  Not two days passed before China called the incident a terrorist attack.  Authorities blame the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Islamic group said to be fighting for independence in Xinjiang province.

Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang scholar at Australia’s Griffith University, said that, while judging by the method of violence used it is possible for the incident to be interpreted as an act of terror, the attacker’s apparent lack of sophistication calls into question the government’s claim of ETIM involvement.  “The immediate question of whether such a fairly amateur-looking attack can be linked to a supposedly organized terrorist group, which is what China wanted the international community to believe by pointing the finger at the ETIM,” Clark stated.

In recent years, China has blamed ETIM for a series of attacks on government targets in Xinjiang.  Many, however, say that Beijing is exaggerating the ETIM terror threat in order to justify its harsh policies against ethnic minority Uyghurs.  China denies mistreating Uyghurs, saying the country’s ethnic minorities are all guaranteed wide-ranging religious and cultural freedoms and benefit from urban development.

Since the Tiananmen incident, Beijing has lashed out at Western analysts for suggesting that repression of Uyghurs is responsible for the violence, stating such accusations amount to supporting terrorists.  U.S. officials have been reluctant to support or deny Beijing’s claim that the Tiananmen crash was an organized act of terrorism.

While the Chinese population is split on the appropriate reaction to acts of anti-government protest and violence, the international community appears split whether or not these acts are organized acts of terrorism or just further examples of disgruntled and marginalized Chinese citizens lashing out against their government in the one of the only ways they know how—violence.

For Further Coverage of the Taiyuan Bombing Online Debate please see the following news sources and commentary

Voice of AmericaChina’s Account of Tian’amen Questioned

The DiplomatChina’s Coming Terrorism Wave

Time WorldSuspected Bomb Blasts Hit Northern Chinese City

BBCBlasts at China’s Regional Communist Party Office Kills One

Tea Leaf NationAfter Taiyuan Explosion, Netizens Debate the Value of Violence

Complied and Edited by Madeline Fetterly