Watching the manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects, China reflects on shared humanity

April 19, 2013
April 19, 2013

One of the earliest set of photos of yesterday’s police chase of suspects related to the Boston Marathon attack came from a Chinese blogger in Beijing by the handle leileiyuyuLei posted photographs of the shooting scene at around 10:51 pm, Boston time, about 21 minutes after an officer was killed (here’s a timeline). The photos were then forwarded over 3,000 times on Chinese social media blog Sina Weibo and garnered about 340 comments from Chinese bloggers, many of which demonstrated a shared sense of confusion and loss in both countries.

Like elsewhere, China has been closely watching this week’s series of fatal events in the US, from bombs at the marathon that killed three and injured hundreds of others to an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed 15. But something seems to have shifted in the way that Chinese residents are responding to American tragedy, over social media at least.

As has been observed, Chinese responses to the marathon explosions couldn’t be more different from after the September 11th attacks on the US, when many Chinese celebrated what they saw as America being knocked down a peg. On Weibo, one user wrote (requires registration), “Twelve years ago after 9/11, the entire country rejoiced, believing a dent had been made in the American empire. This time we’re mourning.” Today, searches for the term “Boston” turned up over six million results on Weibo, many of which commemorated the victims of the Boston race with just an icon of a small red candle.

The outpouring isn’t just because one of China’s own was killed in the attack—a student named Lu Lingzi who had been studying at Boston University. This week, Chinese people have also been trying to make sense of tragedies in their country. A medical student at one of China’s best schools, Fudan University in Shanghai, poisoned his 28-year-old roommate. Now 17 people have died from a mysterious strain of bird flu. One blogger wrote, “There are some heart-breaking incidents happening in Chinese campuses too.” Another added, “Whether it’s east or west, something’s wrong with the water.”

The reason for the shift may be that more Chinese are looking at American society and seeing some of their own problems, a sort of unhappy sign of the country’s development. Recent critical comments from Chinese citizens have less to do with schadenfreude and more with genuine disapproval. This week, Chinese netizens criticized US lawmakers for rejecting a gun law proposed after the shooting and killing of 20 children in Connecticut last year. For the past three years, Chinese have been grappling with unexplained attacks on primary school students in the country. One wrote today, “What’s going on with American law and order these days?” With sarcasm, another wrote, “I like America. I especially like how every day there’s a shooting. Every day there are fumes of rage.”

While the traditional jabs at America are still present on Chinese social media (“The American empire has gone insane,”one wrote), it’s notable that so many reflected on the peace and safety both countries are trying to achieve. Many posted transcripts of President Obama’s speech in Boston yesterday, particularly his comment about Lu Lingzi: “And in the heartache of her family and friends on both sides of a great ocean, we’re reminded of the humanity that we all share.” As the Chinese blogger comparing yesterday’s shootout in Boston to the university killing in Shanghai said, “We’re all trying hard to return to a state of humanity.”

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