In Singapore in 2003 a friend told me that he and many of his friends were delighted when they heard the news of September 11th two years earlier. In China, a colleague told me how he and his classmates applauded and cheered in school the following day. Obviously this isn’t representative of all Asian people, but I also think they were hardly isolated incidents.
I understood it. I understood that there was a lot of joy, and even more schadenfreude, to see the world’s superpower, the one that arrogantly appointed itself police officer of the world, weakened and devastated. It wasn’t right, but it’s not hard to explain.
With that in mind, I was interested in a much-tweeted WSJ blog post that appeared yesterday dealing with the complex range of emotions Chinese people were expressing on the Internet over the news of Bin Laden’s death. Of course, picking out comments from the Web is not a scientific method of measuring public sentiment, especially when vocal fenqing can easily drown out more reasonable voices. Still, I found the contrasting emotions quite fascinating. Here are a few of the examples:
“Deeply mourning Bin Laden,” wrote Weibo user Jiajia Nuwu in comments echoed fairly widely across the site. “Yet another anti-American hero is lost.”
“Is this real? Excellent!” wrote another. “Now the only terrorist left is the United States!”
….“Thank you America for helping us,” wrote user Zhaoling Tongzi, noting Beijing’s assertion that that the Al Qaeda leader had supported a Muslim separatist movement in Xinjiang. “He wasn’t a friend. He was an enemy.”
….In another oblique reference to Chinese politics, a number of Chinese Twitter users passed around a message reading: “Of the ten most evil people in the world, the U.S. has killed one. Now there are nine left.”
Nine is the number of members on the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee.
….In a more analytical vein, former journalist and prominent political blogger Wen Yunchao argued on his Twitter account that the death of Mr. bin Laden would have consequences for China’s foreign policy.
“In the past, the U.S. needed China to join the fight against terrorism and so made more than a few concessions,” Mr. Wen wrote. “Now that bin Laden is dead, there’s one less constraint. The Free World now has more power to encircle China on the issue of universal values.”
So I don’t think we can pigeonhole exactly how “the Chinese people” feel about the news. I’m assuming the usual suspects were unhappy to see America achieve what can only be described as a major victory, while the more sober observers realized it was something that had to be done, and perhaps was even a good thing for the entire world. I appreciated the blog post because it showed there’s more to Chinese opinion on the Web than just angry, jingoistic young men.
While we’re on the topic I’d like to get down some of my own thoughts on what has been an extraordinary couple of days in America.
Osama Bin Laden had become increasingly irrelevant and weak as each year passed. But the jubilation over his capture is unsurprising and is not misplaced (though the circus of ecstasy and shouting of “USA, USA!” is misplaced). After all, he did plan and provide the resources that led to a horrific attack on American soil, nothing less than an act of war, and he was also at least partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims, usually Shiites, who were butchered with religious fanaticism by Bin Laden’s point man in Iraq, Zarqawi. And he was responsible for many other acts of bloodshed against totally innocent victims.
(For anyone who might have doubts about the savagery of Zarqawi and his intimate relationship with Bin Laden, I suggest you read Bruce Riedel’s The Search for Al Qaeda and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.)
So while Bin Laden’s relevancy was diminished, the breadth and scope of his evil remained, and he was deservedly the most wanted man in the world.
Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, was captured in the 1960s, decades after Treblinka was destroyed, and he was in no way “relevant” to any cause at all (he was working at an auto plant in Brazil when he was captured). And yet, his relevancy was not the issue, but his evil deeds were, and justice had to be served. He spent the rest of his life in a German prison. For Bin Laden as well, justice had to be served, and news that it finally happened ignited a not-so-surprising sense of relief and national pride.
I just finished reading the aforementioned Search for Al Qaeda, which explains beautifully why Bin Laden did what he did. It was nearly 100 percent a reaction to Western colonialism in the Middle East following WWI, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel. The breaking point was the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia for the 1991 invasion of Iraq, which Al Qaeda sees as desecration of the sacred Arabian peninsula. They saw the USSR as colonizers of Afghanistan in the 1980s and we gave the Mujaheddin, supported strongly by Bin Laden, aid to defeat the Soviets, then we left them in the lurch, and the rest is history. So it’s quite fair to say the West played a pivotal role in the creation of Al Qaeda. But that’s no justification for global terrorism and mass murder.
I’ve actually read opinions that we should not have killed Bin Laden because it would inevitably lead to a reaction resulting in more violence. I find this point of view extraordinary. Do we actually not go after mass murderers because it would inflame other murderers? Do we turn the other cheek to the architect of an act of evil as heinous as 911, because we’re afraid his followers might respond violently?
On the other hand, I found the reaction by many Americans equally extraordinary, watching them dance in the streets and celebrating as if it were the end of World War II. It wasn’t the end of anything (aside from the hunt for Bin Laden), and celebrating anyone’s death in this way is undignified, . But again, I understand this reaction, even if I don’t admire it.
Bin Laden’s death is a good thing. It was an incredibly large achievement for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, not to mention the Navy SEALs who carried out the operation like clockwork. It was a deservedly proud day for America (how could it not be; the murderer of 3,000 Americans has been brought to justice), but one that needs to be kept in perspective. There are a lot of depraved men out there willing to sacrifice themselves to kill as many infidels as possible. They aren’t necessarily Al Qaeda, the size and strength of which has been exaggerated and mythologized both by the media and by the government. But they do exist, and I doubt Bin Laden’s death will have much impact on them, except to give them added reason to kill. It will, however, deprive them of their charismatic figurehead, and that counts for something.
Update: Nice analysis and screen captures here showing how China’s major media are playing the Osama story.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.