What the Kunming Attack Teaches us about the Internet in China

First of all, let me admit that I have fairly limited personal experience of Uyghurs and Xinjiang people. I remember loving going to the noodle restaurants run by Uyghur families during the months I spent in the south-central Chinese mega-city of Wuhan a few years back. I also remember their ‘exotic’ participation among the other minority participants during the celebratory TV broadcasts during the Chinese New Year festivities. Truthfully, I do not believe my experience of Xinjiang people is too far off that of the Chinese average Joe. As for any majority-minority group relations, the minority usually only inhabits a peripheral part of the majority group’s mindset. In the case of the Uyghur and Han majority group, this isn’t too surprising. The fact that the distance between Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital and Beijing is the same as between London and Kiev, geographically adds to this understanding.

Image courtesy of Corey Grenier, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Corey Grenier, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The Xinjiang name has, however, received worldwide attention in the past few weeks, on account of the horrendous terrorist act in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Within days, Xinjiang separatists were blamed for the coordinated knife attack, killing 29 and injuring 140. This attack raises many questions on the issues of terrorism, nationalism, and majority-minority relations in today’s China. It also, however, teaches us about China’s multifaceted relationship to the internet.

In the Western news feed, it is often not very challenging to discover articles that reveal a great lack of understanding of Chinese society and culture. The truth is that the goings on in China often both confirm and challenge many of our presumptions about the country and its people. That is also the case when it comes to the use of the internet in China.

Although the Chinese government wishes to avoid theorising about the how’s and why’s of the Kunming attack further than explaining that it was committed by a small group of separatists within the Uyghur minority, a top official mentioned one major enabling factor at a session at the National People’s Congress: the internet. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian attributed the terrorist activities in the province to the flow of information on the internet. Through the use of so called Virtual Private Networks, VPNs, terrorists are able to access and exchange information regardless of the censorship of the Great Firewall.[1] Referencing the free flow of information as a factor of instability which goes against the interest of the nation and the Chinese people as a whole is not an unusual story, and aligns neatly to the view most of the international community has of China’s relationship to the internet.

The Kunming attack’s aftermath has, however, showed other attributes of the internet which challenge majority China on its understanding of Xinjiang people, while also challenging international spectators on the way the internet works within Chinese society. Once Xinjiang separatists were blamed for the Kunming attack, the topic “I am a Xinjiang Person” started trending on the social media platform Weibo. With the aim of separating themselves from the alleged terrorists and the terrorists acts, Xinjiang Weibo users used their platforms to show their regional pride while also pushing for national unity and understanding. Ali Mu Jiang writes.

“I am a Xinjiang person. I will wear my ethnic clothing. I will speak my Uyghur language. But I am not a terrorist.”[2]

Among other popular posts, slightly more critical tones could be found:

“In Xinjiang, there are over 260 violent terrorist incidents every year, but I have never heard anyone say, ‘Xinjiang don’t cry, Xinjiang stand strong.’ The moment this kind of thing happens in the mainland, then there is every kind of prayer.”

A common theme however, was that social media provided a platform for the breakdown of stereotyping, and discussion of identity and belonging in a vast and ethnically diverse country.

The fact that the internet is the playing field on which this happens should not, however, be a surprise. China has 591 million internet users and a rapidly growing internet penetration rate, increasing from 34% to 44% between 2010 and 2013, and much of it is done on mobile phones. The lack of knowledge of the magnitude and nature of China’s internet usage by the West could hardly be more clear than during a visit by Sweden’s Minister for IT and Regional Affairs Anna-Karin Hatt to the Chinese capital last October. During a speech at Tsinghua University, she spoke about the perks of a free flow of information through the internet and the prevalence in Sweden of services, such as e-banking and online payment services. As pointed out by Beijing-based journalist Jojje Olsson in Finansliv, Hatt had totally missed the fact that the world’s largest online payment service is actually the Chinese Alipay, not Paypal as one may believe.[3] The fact is that the Chinese are all about the internet, and use their mobile phones in any way they can. A huge number of mobile applications with payment abilities are available and generated $1.6 trillion last year.[4]

Although a country like Sweden can boast a rather high internet usage rate, its suggestions to Beijing to look towards Scandinavia for an understanding of how to use the internet better merely comes off as odd. Perhaps the knowledge exchange should have gone the other way? Understanding that the internet in China is far ahead in some of its development than Western politicians may know does not, however, take away from the fact that the freedom of information is seriously infringed through the army of censors guarding the Great Firewall. Who knows how many contributions to the Weibo discussion on Kunming were taken down within minutes of their publishing?

The aftermath of the Kunming terrorist attack shows us the multifaceted nature of the internet in China. It is used as a scapegoat by officials, and as a tool for collective mourning and discussion. While many things can and should be said about the freedom of the internet in China, the international community does itself no favours by repeatedly showing its lack of knowledge and understanding of how China works. The wake of the Kunming tragedy challenges international spectators to see that China is often more than meets the eye. And this is certainly true when it comes to China’s complex relationship with the web.

[1] Beech, Hanna. “The Internet Helped Cause the Kunming Terrorist Attack, Says China.” http://time.com/14234/china-kunming-xinjiang-terror/

[2] Blatt, Mitch “I am a Xinjiang Person”: Weibo users rally against stereotyping in the wake of terrorist attack. http://www.chinahush.com/2014/03/04/i-am-a-xinjiang-person-anti-discrimination-campaign/

[3] Olsson, Jojje. “I Kina kan man göra ALLT med mobilen” http://www.finansliv.se/joeolsson/i-kina-kan-man-gora-allt-med-mobilen/

[4] Hong, Kayleen. “How big are mobile payments in China?” http://thenextweb.com/asia/2014/02/18/how-big-are-mobile-payments-in-china-nearly-1-6-trillion-in-transactions-were-made-in-2013/#!zkEWK