One foreign-policy issue on which, in theory, China and the West stand shoulder-to-shoulder is the fight against jihadist terrorism. When Chinese and Western leaders meet, their statements usually condemn terrorism “in all its forms” and pledge more co-operation in countering it. But reactions in China to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris and to recent successful counter-terrorism operations at home reveal a big gap in perceptions.
China criticised the Paris attacks unreservedly. But its press also blamed Charlie Hebdo for offending Muslims. The latest issue of another French magazine, Fluide Glacial, gave China a chance to show that it, too, is a victim of what Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid, calls “free-speech mania”. The magazine features a cartoon of a Frenchman pulling a rickshaw with a Chinese passenger, under the headline “Yellow Peril”. Not everyone, warned Global Times, is as “good-tempered” as China, whose officials loftily ignored the slur.
The West’s reactions to terrorism within China are seen as even more troubling. “Double standards in the fight against terror and acquiescence in religious extremism do no good to any party,” thundered China Daily, an official newspaper, this week. The paper was celebrating the busting of people-smuggling networks involved in helping ethnic-Uighur Muslims from China’s western region of Xinjiang flee the country, usually to Turkey and then, allegedly, to join extremists in Syria and elsewhere. In one incident last November, reported only this month, police in Shanghai arrested nine Uighurs who were trying to leave the country by air. Also detained were ten Turks and two Chinese citizens helping them—including with fake passports. Then this week, close to the border with Vietnam, two of five Uighurs trying to flee overland were shot dead; the others were captured.
The double standards China Daily detected were to portray such men not as terrorists but as “innocent, helpless members of an ethnic minority fleeing ‘suppression’ at home in pursuit of ‘freedom’.” By contrast, China depicts terrorist attacks blamed on Uighurs as fomented in part from abroad; and it wants to show that its own radicalised Uighurs are a global threat. Last month the Chinese press reported that 300 Chinese citizens were fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to the police, 352 people have been arrested in recent months for alleged involvement in people-smuggling, along with 852 Uighurs trying to leave the country. Hundreds more who managed to cross the border were detained last year in Thailand and elsewhere.
Some Uighurs have certainly been guilty of terrorism, including an appalling massacre—using knives—at the railway station in Kunming in south-western China last March in which 29 people were killed and 143 injured. Many private citizens in China feel aggrieved that the West has offered scant sympathy for the loss of life. On Chinese microblogging sites, the worldwide outpouring of grief and solidarity in France and elsewhere for the dead in Paris have been taken as proof of Western hypocrisy and prejudice. Did Chinese lives matter less?
Picture: Amateur55 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons