It has been called China’s 9/11 or 3/01 after the date on which horror descended. On March 1, in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, assailants armed with cleavers, daggers and other knives brutally ended the lives of at least 29 people at a railway station, a terrorism spree that has been blamed on separatists from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur ethnic group. Slashing at their victims with chilling abandon, the attackers, dressed in black, maimed 143 others before police shot four of the assailants dead. A fifth suspect in the massacre, a woman, is alive and in the hospital.
On the evening of March 3, China’s state news agency Xinhua announced that three other suspects on the run had been captured. “The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement that the terrorist gang of eight members led by Abdurehim Kurban was responsible for the attack,” reported Xinhua. CCTV, the state broadcaster, deemed “the terror attack case solved.”
Minutes after the Kunming carnage, Chinese journalists began covering the attack online, reposting photos from the scene of devastation. Other reporters, who happened to be in Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, like Lu Minghe, a journalist from the respected Southern Weekly, quickly posted their initial takes. Lu posted his first dispatch from Kunming at 1:04 a.m. on March 2. Then, seven minutes later, Lu posted another comment on Weibo, the Chinese microblog service: “The gag order has come. The 28 lives are so meaningless in the face of this order.” (The death toll was later increased to 29.)
Lu was referring to the censorship directive that abruptly ended much online chatter from Chinese journalists, even as their instincts told them to keep reporting on the nation’s deadly terrorist attack. The edict from the central propaganda department, which was later leaked online, said, “Regarding the stabbing incident in Kunming on March 1: When covering this, follow the Xinhua story strictly and [reporting] should be based on the information released by the local authority. No big headlines, no pictures.”
The order resulted in a curious sameness to the Kunming coverage published in thousands of Chinese newspapers. Even dailies from the stricken city limited themselves to the official version, as described by Xinhua. The morning after the murderous rampage, the Kunming Daily, the local paper, did not run a single front-page story on the attack written by its own reporters. Instead, the newspaper led with a Xinhua story and a short editorial that, in rousing socialist speak, exhorted readers to “try our best to secure the lives of the masses.” In fact, the only story on the front page written by local reporters was on a completely different topic: a project to improve municipal sanitation.
By March 3, local papers published their own stories on the aftermath. Locally written coverage in the Kunming Daily began on the third page, with brief articles on how 1,900 people had donated blood and how other residents had lit candles in memory of those who were killed. Still, the Xinhua perspective on the attack dominated: a terrible terrorist event had occurred but order was rapidly being restored. A March 3 Xinhua article, which was published in Yunnan papers, noted that shops around the railway station had all reopened and quoted passengers who said there was nothing to be worried about because there were many police stationed in the area.
The Yunnan Daily’s lead story on March 3 described how the provincial governor was confident the battle against terrorism would be won. Another front-page piece, written by a local journalist, was headlined “Spare No Efforts to Maintain Social Stability and Unity of Different Nationalities.” (“Nationalities” refers to the different ethnic groups in China.) A further story noted that Kunming hospitals had enough blood for the injured patients. Other local tabloids provided more sensational details of how people had managed to fight back against the attackers.
Few of the articles, either by Xinhua reporters or by other Chinese journalists, explored why the bloodbath may have happened in Kunming or discussed the possible twisted motives driving the terror seekers. The kind of blanket tribute coverage of victims common in massacre reporting from other countries was largely absent in the initial coverage. Instead, such topics were reserved for China’s lively microblog space. Although state censors deleted some posts, photos and video on the attack, personal stories about victims circulated, drawing numerous grieving responses. Others took to Weibo to lament the methodical, seemingly professional way in which the attackers knifed their victims. “We are all Chinese, so why are we killing each other?” wrote one Weibo user. “Why did [the assailants] look so indifferently at the fallen? How could they be so cold-blooded?”
Predictably, some anger at the terror seekers grew to encompass an entire ethnicity, a suspicion that was shared by a local government in Guangxi, the province that borders Yunnan, which posted a notice urging people to report to the police any individuals from Xinjiang in the area. “Xinjiang people are not human beings,” wrote another person on Weibo. Online invective against Uighurs and Islam, the dominant faith of the Uighurs, piled up.
Others, though, including influential Weibo personalities, urged understanding and tolerance. “Acts of terrorism against civilians must be stopped, with no compromise,” wrote Han Han, one of the most popular Weibo celebrities. “Also, I wish that people won’t lay this hate on an entire nationality or region.” His comment was retweeted more than 200,000 times.
With Chinese media unable to freely report on the Kunming tragedy, some Chinese went online to see what foreign news sources were reporting. (Some international news sites are blocked in China, but people can find ways to circumvent what is called the Great Firewall.) What they found, though, generated plenty of controversy. Some stories by foreign reporters examined Uighur discontent with government repression; this was taken by hundreds of thousands of online Chinese as somehow justifying the Kunming terrorism spree. An op-ed carried by Xinhua said, “Implicit accusations against China’s ethnic policy are also baseless and biased. Beijing has fully demonstrated its commitment to protecting freedom of region, preserving cultural diversity and promoting development and prosperity in minority areas.” The op-ed quoted online criticism of TIME for its Kunming coverage.
The decision by some international media outlets to either decline to call the attacks terrorism or to put the word in quotation marks incensed others. Online posters contrasted these decisions with a statement from the members of the U.N. Security Council that “condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack.” In a commentary, Xinhua called the American embassy in Beijing to task for its own statement on the Kunming mass murder. “The U.S. embassy in China has downplayed the severity of the bloody carnage in southwestern Kunming City, calling it on its official Weibo account a ‘horrible and totally meaningless act of violence,’ short of calling the murderers ‘terrorists.’” The op-ed continued: “How the U.S. government and some media described the terrorist attacks in China has revealed their persistent double standard in the global fight against terrorism. Their leniency for the terrorists is sending signals of encouragement to potential attackers.”
On Monday, a People’s Daily online graphic went viral, purporting to show the differing ways in which Western media covered the Kunming massacre and the 2013 murder of an off-duty soldier in Britain by perpetrators who said they wanted retribution for Muslim deaths caused by British armed forces. The graphic said, for instance, that the Telegraph had chosen not to describe the Kunming attack as “terrorism,” instead referring to mere “violence.” Yet an account filed by a Telegraph correspondent in Kunming was headlined “Survivors Recount Scenes of Terror Dubbed ‘China’s 9/11′ by State Media.” The story also referred to a quote from a “terrorism expert.”
Xinhua, though, is standing firm. The conclusion of one of the state news agency’s Kunming editorials said, “Anyone attempting to harbor and provide sympathies for the terrorists, calling them the repressed or the weak, is encouraging such attacks and helping committing a crime.”
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang and Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing