China sees the best and worst of America in Boston bombing

April 16, 2013

A Boston police officer stands near the scene of a twin bombing at the Boston Marathon. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

China's many Web users tend to watch U.S. events closely, so it was no surprise to see the Monday bombings at the Boston Marathon become the top trending topic on Weibo, China's massive social media service. Some of this conversation turned around often-debated questions of the relative merits of the Chinese and American systems. The comments are revealing, both for what they say about how the U.S. and its values are perceived in China and for how Chinese compare the U.S. to their own country.

For all the American obsession with security and safety, it's the U.S.'s show of transparency, of coming together in common cause, that seems to be stirring jealously and even reverence in far-away China.

Chinese Web users seemed to draw two general conclusions: that China would be more effective at preventing a Boston-style attack, but that the U.S. is better equipped to respond to and cope such an event. They portrayed China as a formidable security state that privileges safety and secrecy, but the U.S. as a place where officials, police and citizens work together in harmony and cooperation.

It's a somewhat rosy perspective of the U.S., one discussed jealously, even reverently. Many Chinese commenters seemed to treat this American trade-off – less security for greater transparency – as not only preferable but something from which their own country should learn.

"I’m not saying that the US is much better than China," one Weibo user wrote in a comment aggregated by the site Offbeat China. "But in the face of a bombing attack, they have absolute information transparency and absolute freedom of speech. There is no ban on reporting or block of information. All media are allowed to report, which will never happen in our country."

Here's another, widely shared Weibo comment that drew a sharp comparison between the U.S. response and China's typical secrecy.

Three hours after the Boston bombing, news websites and TV channels are streaming live news – there is no ban on news reporting. Local police held a press conference immediately – quick reaction plus transparent information and thus there is no rumor or panic. Google released Person Finder; the public offered help for those runners who are from outside of Boston or the country; thousands of people left their contact information. In the face of a severe situation, the government, the media, companies and individuals all work together smoothly. It’s something we ought to learn.

Some Weibo users suggested that a similar attack would have been far more difficult to carry out in major Chinese cities, where police surveillance is famously rigorous. One argued that, even if someone did succeed in setting off bombs in China, "With no immediate press conference and all information blocked, the terrorists would have no proof that they indeed attacked. There will be no impact at all."

Though few users seemed to disagree that the Chinese government's initial response to such an attack would be secrecy, many argued that this would actually hurt the country's ability to respond and address the needs of victims. Here is a much-cited Weibo comment arguing how China would respond to a Boston-style attack in one of its own cities:

In China, government press release starts at best 6 hours after the attack. During the 6 hours, most media remain silent because they are not given the permission to report yet. On the Internet, rumors start to spread. Angry netizens start to blame the government for doing nothing. Public intellectuals [a term used to describe liberals] start to accuse the government of failing their responsibilities. No one mentions a word about the victims or those who suffer from the attack. Our government has a long way to go. Our netizens also have a long way to go.

For the most part, Chinese Web commentary on the attack seems to focus first on sympathy for the victims and second on highlighting what the U.S. response says about the American system and its relative merits. But, as is often the case when tragedy strikes the U.S., there is a very small but very vocal minority crowing over what they describe as a well-deserved comeuppance.

"Good! Let them also hear the sound of explosions in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia!" One of the anti-American Web users posted, going on to defend the Chinese government's secrecy during its own mass tragedies. "China has an old saying: 'It’s not that we don’t report it, it’s that the time hasn’t yet come.' Another saying is also appropriate: 'Persisting in evil brings about self-destruction!'"

Though these comments represent an extreme minority, a deep mistrust of U.S. foreign policy is, in my experience, fairly common in China. Many believe that the U.S. wrongly and counterproductively seeks to impose its will on other countries, especially China, a practice often described as "imperialism." Still, anti-American comments linking that criticism to the Boston bombing do not appear to have been the norm, and were at times met with fierce criticism from other Chinese Web users.

"With the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, there are people who condemn the perpetrators mourning the victims, while other people denounce the United States saying the bombing was well-deserved and so satisfying," one Weibo user wrote, turning that debate into a matter of national self-criticism. "We have no universal values upon which to build a foundation, so when something happens, many people don’t know from which perspective they should consider something."

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Max Fisher | April 16, 2013