Why 140,000 Chinese people want to kick out CNN

November 8, 2013

A woman works online in a Beijing office. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING – More than 140,000 web users have signed an online petition to kick CNN out of China after it published a commentary questioning whether a vehicle deliberately crashed into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that killed five and injured 40 counted as a terrorist attack.

The petition is a reaction to an op-ed published on CNN’s Web site, by George Washington University associate professor Sean R. Roberts. His column questioned whether the Tiananmen incident was “a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state's monstrous development machine.”

In China, where foreign media are often painted as motivated by or having links to “overseas hostile forces,” the commentary quickly triggered outcry from the Chinese government, state-run media, and web users. The petition, which attracted an unusually high but not unheard of number of signatures, is just the tip of the outrage.

“We urge CNN to get out of Chinese territory, we want more Chinese people to unite together,” posted a blogger under the name “Hongbuxia”, who started collecting signatures on Monday on a popular portal China.com. “As an ordinary Chinese citizen, I cannot take further actions but I hope the voices of 1.3 billion Chinese people will be heard by the world.”

Many drew comparisons to U.S. outrage after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “In the logic of CNN, is 9/11 the result of Americans bullying Middle Easterners and Islamists? Their revenge is reasonable, so shall we resolutely support operations like 9/11?” read one post in response to the petition.

Chinese netizens also directed much of their anger onto CNN’s Web site, pouring out their criticisms in both English and Chinese. One user identified as “cnnliar” said, “Shame on you. Is 9/11 an act of desperation? Do you call them freedom fighters?” Another user under the name of Raymond Chiangmai wrote, Americans “are just afraid of our rising, our increasing power and our faith! So just do what we want to! Be a Chinese proudly!”

Commenting on the furor, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said this week, “Relevant media should tell right from wrong on this issue and cover it with an objective and impartial attitude rather than the other way around.”

State media also got in on the action. “CNN is way out of line this time,” said Global Times, a Chinese state newspaper, in its editorial on Monday.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV alleged in a news program that CNN has “an ulterior motive” in reporting the attack and “seeks an excuse for the crime of terrorists”.

Faced with all the finger-pointing, Beijing-based CNN producer in Beijing Steven Jiang pleaded for understanding on his Chinese microblog account, explaining that people were confusing opinion commentaries that run on CNN with its news reports.

It’s not the first time CNN has faced such Chinese anger. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- after a riot in Tibet left at least 18 civilians and one policeman dead and hundreds injured -- a Tsinghua University alumni Rao Jin created the website www.anti-CNN.com to highlight what he called distorted and biased reports in western media.

The site attracted over 100,000 registered members in its first 10 days. It was later renamed “April Youth," with a self-described goal of promoting patriotism among Chinese youths.

When it comes to kicking out media in China, the most important opinion however remains that of the Communist Party’s. In recent months, it has blocked the Web sites of New York Times and Bloomberg after news reports by both on the vast accumulated wealth of China’s leaders.

So far, the Tiananmen crash has proved much less sensitive and CNN’s Web site remains untouched.

William Wan contributed to this report.

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Max Fisher · November 8, 2013