No Sympathy from China's Cyber Elite

The wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in the country's chat rooms reflects a deep-seated anger, one that Beijing has knowingly nurtured

By Bruce Einhorn

Who has been taking satisfaction in the U.S. tragedy? You can start with the misguided fundamentalists in the Middle East who seemed to rejoice in the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But sadly, look also at some Internet sites in a place seemingly removed from the passions of the turmoil -- China.

The day after the attack that killed thousands of innocents, Chinese cyberchatters were writing that Americans were getting their just desserts for being a hegemonic power that bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and downed a Chinese fighter plane in the South China Sea earlier this year. Chat rooms in portals like were filled with hateful comments like "Airplanes? Why not an atomic bomb?"

When I first heard about these statements on Sina (ironically, itself a U.S. company traded on Nasdaq), my first reaction was to dismiss them as the ramblings of isolated cranks. After all, the official Chinese response has been sympathetic, if not a tad more tepid than from U.S. allies.

Shortly after the attacks, President Jiang Zemin issued a statement denouncing the terrorists and offering to help the U.S. On Sept. 13, Jiang spoke to President Bush on the phone and offered to increase dialogue between Beijing and Washington as part of an effort to crack down on the terrorists. An editorial in the state-run China Daily newspaper called for the international community to wage "an all-out war against terrorism." And Chinese TV has started broadcasting sympathetic news showing the world response to the tragedy in America.


  Still, if you read between the lines, it's not hard to detect a certain ambivalence from China's officials. While Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and numerous other leaders took to TV to voice their horror and disgust on the day after the attack, Jiang did not personally express his sympathy for Americans in a public forum.

The anti-American sentiments in the Chinese chat rooms aren't likely coming from mindless morons. David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics who teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST), argues that, by virtue of their computer literacy and access to cyberspace, the online audience in China is an influential group. Their socioeconomic background is not all that different from that of many of the technocrats running the country's ministries. "They are part of the future elite," says Zweig, who is an associate professor at HKUST as well as at Queen's College in Kingston, Ontario.

Of course, we don't know for sure. One of the reasons that people sound off on the Internet anywhere in the world is because it allows for anonymity. That's especially important in a country like China, where freedom of speech isn't considered a fundamental right. But the demographics of the Internet in China are telling. In the U.S., anybody with a telephone line and a PC can rant in a chat room. But China is a poor country, and computers are out of reach for the vast majority of the population. And unlike the U.S. -- where senior citizens are now avid Web surfers -- the online population is still composed largely of students and yuppies who live in prosperous metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai.


  Among parts of the future elite in China, America-bashing is chic. Angry young Chinese can recite a litany of perceived grievances, ranging from the recent spy-plane incident, to the 1999 Yugoslavia bombing, to the 1993 vote by the U.S. Congress in opposition to China getting the Olympics, and all the way back to the Boxer Rebellion and 19th century Opium Wars (which was waged by the British and the French, but never mind). Zweig points out that when other Chinese in the Internet chat rooms have spoken out on behalf of the U.S., they've been attacked.

The Chinese government monitors Internet traffic and knows about the exchanges. And although Beijing's Propaganda Ministry has belatedly moved to block the anti-American comments, the government is responsible for a lot of the sentiment. Like former communist regimes Eastern Europe that used patriotism in an attempt to hold onto power, Beijing recognizes the benefits of stoking nationalism as a unifying force. "A lot of this anti-Americanism has actually been fanned by the Chinese government," says Zweig. "They try to balance that anti-Americanism, use it...without letting it get out of control and coming back to bite them."

It also explains why Jiang has been wary about being too overt in his expressions of sympathy. "The Chinese leadership is very nervous about being accused of being soft on America," says Zweig.


  In the wake of the terrorist attacks in the U.S., Beijing is going to have to be even more careful. It's already nervous about being perceived as too soft on Islamic separatists. Xinjiang, the vast region in China's Far West, has a sizable population of Muslim Uygurs, an ethnic group far closer to Turks than to Han Chinese. And Xinjiang is in a dangerous neighborhood that includes the Taliban's Afghanistan.

Xinjiang has witnessed its own share of terrorist attacks, which is why Beijing has been taking steps to keep the Taliban away from Sino borders. China has tried the carrot, signing an agreement with the Taliban for increased economic and other cooperation. And it has also tried the stick, taking a keen interest in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which consists of China, Russia, and four Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

While the group talks about developing mutual trust and promoting common development, the key point is enhancing regional stability. "It's really China protecting Xinjiang and fighting Islamic extremists," explains Zweig. "They are saying we all share the same problem -- Muslim extremism. So let's work together."

After the horror in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, it's disturbing to find the reactions on China's chat rooms. I hope the Chinese and the Americans will realize that we should be working together. But the cybercomments remind me that, for a long time, Beijing has been having it both ways: courting U.S. investment while encouraging anti-American sentiment among its elite. Now, China will have to choose sides.

Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht