When the Boston Marathon was bombed last April by two Chechen, separatist-advocating, Muslim, confused, amateur terrorists, there was speculation on the Chinese internet about how China’s government would react to a similar situation. From the looks of things, a similar scenario has recently taken place in Beijing: just change two to three (well, with some still on the run) and Chechen to Uighur.
At the time of the Boston bombing, some internet users claimed that China’s government is quite hard to terrorize, because censorship would ensure “terrorists would have no proof that they indeed attacked.” The government hasn’t gone as far as an outright denial of the event, of course, but it is noteworthy that the story has been shuffled into a minor subcategory of the China Daily’s homepage, and is entitled “Accident in Tian’anmen kills 5 people,” despite a near-uniform shift in the foreign press to describe the event as a “crash,” “attack,” or the (terribly euphemistic) “incident.” Regardless of the actual term used, an “accident” this was not.
There was also, of course, the issue of censorship, and not just online. Internet users at the time of the Boston bombing remarked that, in China, reportage would be blocked for several hours following the event, and that the area itself would likely be quarantined from public view. At the time, we reported:
Another netizen 苦逼座的圣斗士ZYY described what he believed would happen in China in a similar scenario: “In China, government press release starts at best 6 hours after the attack. During the 6 hours, most media remain silent because they are not given the permission to report yet. […] No one mentions a word about the victims or those who suffer from the attack. Our government has a long way to go. Our netizens also have a long way to go.”
However, the authorities were unusually quick not only to scrub the physical site clean of all traces of the crash, but also to erase any mention of it on the internet and in the media. There was no report of the incident on the national 7pm news bulletin.
A huge police presence flooded central Beijing, photographs of the flames, and of the plumes of smoke rising above the square, were erased and all eye-witness accounts were removed from the internet. Foreign journalists attempting to report from near the square were briefly detained.
Monday’s incident (shit, now I’m saying it) has sparked countless questions, very few of which have been answered, and nearly none of which have been answered officially. Although the American response to the Boston bombing has been occasionally criticized as overkill, there was still a (comparatively) decent level of transparency and responsiveness in regards to the authorities’ actions in the hours and days after the attack. In China, the official press still classifies the attack as an “accident,” yet leaked documents and some speeches clearly show that the view within the government is that this was an attack linked to the Uyghur separatist movement.
I was in the US when the Boston bombing took place, and had several friends not only in the city of Boston, but who had attended the marathon itself. When the pressure-cookers exploded, it was a matter of minutes before myself and millions of others throughout the country knew that something had happened. A few moments later, I was in touch with friends in Boston. A few hours later, I was reading about the police search for the Tsarnaevs, about critiques of the press’ shoddy fact-checking, and about who knew what and when. Several days later, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found by police in a civilian’s parked powerboart, I watched the event live on TV and followed up with the Boston PD’s official Twitter. In America, the media sits in grim excitement, waiting for an event like that. In China, it means a complete media blackout.
At the time of the Boston attack, OffBeatChina reported:
Popular Weibo celebrity 假装在纽约 commented: “Three hours after the Boston bombing, news websites and TV channels are streaming live news – there is no ban on news reporting. Local police held a press conference immediately – quick reaction plus transparent information and thus there is no rumor or panic. Google released Person Finder; the public offered help for those runners who are from outside of Boston or the country; thousands of people left their contact information. In the face of a severe situation, the government, the media, companies and individuals all work together smoothly. It’s something we ought to learn.”
With incredibly few citizen-reports coming in from the ground uncensored, a media that is seeking to pacify instead of inform, and a police force whose goals need to be determined via leaked documents, China, really, thoroughly, hasn’t learned yet.