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China Censors Online Outcry After ISIS Execution

The Death of a Chinese Hostage Could Put Grassroots Pressure on the Government to Get More Involved in the Middle East

On November 18, the Islamic State (IS) released photos of what it claimed were two executed hostages. The photos, appearing in the terrorist group’s English-language magazine Dabiq, depict two men with bloodied faces, the word “executed” emblazoned across the image. One of the men resembled Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad of Norway, the other Fan Jinghui of China. IS had claimed in September to have kidnapped the two; but Fan’s death threatens to send shockwaves through a Chinese citizenry generally leery of the kind of military involvement that has imposed so many costs on the United States. Small wonder that China’s censors are descending on cyberspace before citizens get a chance to discuss it.

China’s media and its citizens are clearly eager to talk about Fan’s death, with many Chinese media websites such as Sina and Phoenix Media quickly picking up foreign media reports of the images’ release. Shortly thereafter, however, censors in the country’s tightly restricted Internet swooped in. Many related articles, particularly detailed ones, were hastily removed, leaving behind brief, press-release-style pieces, often consisting of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hong Lei’s response that he was “deeply shocked” when he heard the reports, and Hong stated that the Chinese government was working to verify the information. On November 19, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the killing had taken place, calling it “cold-blooded and violent,” and Chinese President Xi Jinping condemned the bloodshed.

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Meanwhile, related posts on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, were quickly removed, and on November 18, searches for terms such as “Islamic State” and “Fan Jinghui” yielded no related results. Yet search results on Freeweibo, a censorship-tracking website that compiles deleted Weibo posts, indicate that Fan’s possible death had become a hot topic before discussion was stymied. According to Weiboscope, a censorship-tracking tool operated by the University of Hong Kong, the most-censored words on Weibo on November 18 included “hostage,” “China,” and “IS.” Comments to deleted posts, captured here, indicate that a heated discussion had already broken out about whether or not China should deploy troops to fight IS. “ISIS wants war, so let’s just give them war,” wrote one user. “This time, if [the government] still doesn’t deploy soldiers,” wrote another, “it won’t be able to explain itself to its people.” But others disagreed. “What’s wrong with those people, saying China should send soldiers?” commented another user. “Let [Europe and America] take responsibility for IS … China should just take care of itself.”

Hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots may help explain the quick censorship.

Hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots may help explain the quick censorship. Chinese authorities have been careful to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States. The Chinese government has tried to position itself as a peaceful world power, an alternative to what it portrays as U.S. militarism. Yet as China has fought a worsening insurgency in its far western province of Xinjiang, and as it has deepened its ties with Central and South Asia and the Middle East, it has become more difficult for the once-isolated nation to maintain its distance from the conflicts roiling the regions. In a July 2014 speech caught on video, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi listed China as a country where “Muslim rights are forcibly seized.” In December 2014, state-run Global Times reported that 300 Chinese citizens who supported independence for the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang were traveling to Syria to join IS, although those numbers cannot be independently verified.

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In the aftermath of the September news of Fan’s kidnapping, Chen Dingding, an assistant professor of government and administration at the University of Macau, told The New York Times in September that the first IS kidnapping of a Chinese citizen could serve to change the government’s mind. “If he comes back safely, fine, no problem,” Chen said then. “But a very tragic ending could be a turning point.”