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Reuters/Michael Martina
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GLOBAL EXTREMISM

The New Zealand shooter finds support in Islamophobic corners of China’s internet

Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian gunman who carried out the deadly mosque shooting in New Zealand on Friday (March 15), said in his screed that “the nation with the closest political and social values” to his own is China, and that he admired “non-diverse” nations.

While Tarrant, who now faces one charge of murder, didn’t elaborate on his views of China—which was one of many global references (paywall) he dropped that investigators are now examining—his hatred of Islam certainly has support from corners of China’s internet.

One anonymous post (link in Chinese) on social network WeChat titled “The words on the New Zealand shooter’s guns reflect the deep anxiety of European white men”—a reference to the white supremacy markings on Tarrant’s rifles, and his grievances over Muslim immigration to western countries—has garnered at least 100,000 views at the time of writing, the maximum number of views on a post displayed by the platform. The piece lays blame on Christchurch officials for allowing the construction of mosques, and claimed this resulted in more Muslims coming to the city. It even alleged that the shooting was staged by left-wing politicians.

Some of the comments under the post suggest that followers of the “green religion“—a sometimes derogatory term often used on the Chinese internet to refer to Islam because of the significance of the color to the faith—brought the attack upon themselves. “The green religion launches terrorist attacks everywhere, and now the attack finally comes to them… Green religion is backwards, stupid, barbaric, and violent,” said one such comment.

Elsewhere, on social network Weibo, many comments reflected the view that the shooting was a by-product of the West’s excessive political correctness, a perspective that has found increasing support on China’s internet in recent years as part of what’s known as the baizuo, or “white left” movement, a derogatory term used to describe Western progressives that is roughly analogous to the term “social justice warrior.”

One Weibo user wrote (link in Chinese), “This is a rare act of resistance from a white man. We need to find a way to prolong this and encourage white men to apply for all kinds of honors for the gunman, including a Nobel peace prize.” Another wrote (link in Chinese) that “this so-called ‘darkest day‘ is simply political correctness. A reminder to the greens: not everyone is willing to tolerate your outrageous actions.” The comment was a reference to remarks by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who said the attack would be remembered as one of the country’s darkest days.

Anti-Islam sentiment has become widespread on the internet in China amid resentment over what some believe to be preferential government policies toward minorities, as well as over attacks carried out by a handful of Muslim Uyghurs from the country’s far west. One prominent expression of it is in comments about “halalification,” as people express their anger that offering halal products could undermine China’s unity. A decision last year by one of the country’s biggest food-delivery apps, Meituan, to offer halal food packaging drew an outcry from people in China who said the practice was discriminatory against non-Muslims, as did a Beijing university’s move to offer halal mooncakes at its celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival.

Another indicator of that sentiment is the extraordinary popularity of the Israeli embassy’s account on Weibo, which last year ranked as the foreign mission with the most followers on the social network, according to a study last year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. A possible reason for the embassy’s popularity is that its followers in China see its account as an outlet for sharing Islamophobic comments. One of the most liked comments under a Weibo post by the Israeli embassy on the US relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was “Put the boot into the cancer of humanity”—a likely reference to Muslims.

The rise of Islamophobia on China’s internet comes against a backdrop of the government’s intensifying crackdown on the country’s 23 million Muslims. Most of China’s Muslims are Turkic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but another minority known as the Hui, who belong to the dominant Han ethnicity in China, live in the Ningxia autonomous region and have long been regarded as well-assimilated, model Muslims. In January, China passed a new law that could rewrite how Islam is practiced in the country.

China has in recent years constructed large-scale re-education camps in Xinjiang where, by one estimate, 1.5 million Muslims are incarcerated, while those living outside the camps are subject to unprecedented levels of surveillance in an ever-growing police state. China has likened those camps to “boarding schools” or training institutes, and says its measures are necessary in order to preventive  radicalization of Muslims and to thwart terrorist attacks—an argument which has widespread support in China, following attacks including stabbings carried out by a group of Uyghurs in Kunming in 2014 which killed 31.

Beijing’s suppression of Islam has also extended to the Hui minority, where reports say that authorities are snuffing out Arabic and Islamic symbols and practices.

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