Chinese Web Users Grieve for Syrian Toddler—and Blame America

Reaction to Images of Aylan Kurdi Says Much About the Deep Tie Many See Between Democracy and Chaos

A photo of Syrian three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, who drowned as his family attempted to flee their war-torn homeland by crossing the Mediterranean Sea to find refuge in Greece, has stunned viewers across Europe and the United States and jump-started debate about how to resolve Europe’s migrant crisis. The heart-breaking image has also resonated widely among audiences in China, where many web users have expressed dismay at the tragedy continuing to unfold in Syria and its nearby waters. But accompanying the many expressions of horror and sadness in China has been a remarkable outpouring of anger at the United States, which many in China reflexively blame for the Syrian migrant crisis.

Nilufer Demir—Dogan News Agency via AFP/Getty Images
A Turkish police officer carries the dead body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old migrant child from Syria, on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey, on September 2, 2015 after a boat carrying refugees sank en route to the Greek island of Kos.

It’s a crisis unfolding relatively far from China’s borders, but the photo of Kurdi brought the reality of the crisis home to many there, finding wide play in both state-run and social media. State news agency Xinhua included the photo in its daily top-ten list of international news, popular news portal NetEase featured the photo on its website, and multiple media outlets posted the photo to their accounts on microblogging platform Weibo, where the photo received tens of thousands of shares. Chinese Internet giant Sina’s official news channel widely posted the image on Weibo on September 3 with the caption, “The tiny victim who will break your heart.” Many expressed grief, or hope for eventual peace. “Baby, in your next life may you be born into a peaceful, happy country,” wrote one user. “I have a five year old child,” another user commented. “As a mother, all I have to do is think of how much pain and fear this child must have felt, and my heart hurts so much I can hardly breathe.”

But many of the most popular comments placed blame squarely on U.S. shoulders. Those comments reflect a deep-seated mistrust of the motives and outcomes attached to American foreign policy.

Those comments reflect a deep-seated mistrust of the motives and outcomes attached to American foreign policy.
Syria’s current civil war has roots in the country’s 2011 pro-democracy protests, which some Chinese believe the United States helped foment in a bid to install a democratic government friendly to U.S. interests. Posts castigating “American-style democracy” and “imperial America” for the instability in Syria and the resulting migrant crisis proliferated across multiple platforms, and were often the most-upvoted comments to Syria-related news items on social media—even if those news items themselves said nothing about the United States. “Ever since America, boasting of freedom and democracy, launched a color revolution in Syria,” wrote one user in a popular Weibo comment. “How many young lives have withered away in the fires of war?” Another Weibo user wrote, “Those of you calling on Papa America for freedom, get out of here.” Another decried those “who kept mouthing off about freedom and democracy.”

Others online praised China’s stability in the face of chaos allegedly caused by Western values. One comment that circulated widely on WeChat, a massive mobile chat platform, read, “That’s why I believe in Chinese foreign policy”—a reference to Beijing’s stated commitment to non-interference in internal affairs of other countries. “It’s not weakness, it’s that we don’t want to force people into lives of vagrancy.” One article on news portal Sohu featuring the now-famous photo of the drowned boy garnered more than a thousand comments; a popular response blamed those who had sought regime change: “If you force Syria’s Assad out of power, this is the result.”

This online finger-pointing stems from a belief widely held across China—and actively reinforced by the Party—that liberal Western political systems do not suit non-Western countries, and that attempts to install it only cause political and social instability. State media outlets readily highlight failed attempts at political reform in other countries as cautionary tales. In a representative May 2014 article titled, “Beware the trap of Western-style democracy,” Party mouthpiece People’s Daily pointed to recent instability in Ukraine and Thailand. “Copying ‘Western-style democracy’ is largely unsuitable for local conditions, and can even be a destructive force,” the article claimed. “Street politics”—referring to participatory political activities such as demonstrations—“often result in chaos and even civil war.”

It’s through this ideological lens that many Chinese web users see the rising death toll in Syria. More than 240,000 people have perished in the conflict so far, according to rights groups, and more than 4 million have fled the country, in what the United Nations has deemed the worst refugee crisis in almost 25 years. “All of Facebook is lighting candles,” wrote another Weibo user in a popular comment. “But these are the same people who went out to demonstrate and forced their own country to support the so-called Arab Spring, and who supported overthrowing the government that had risen naturally from local Middle East traditions.”