BEIJING — China on Thursday vowed "justice" for a Chinese national kidnapped and apparently slain by the Islamic State. "The Chinese government will resolutely oppose all forms of terrorism, and resolutely strike at any violent terrorist criminal activities that defy the bottom lines of human culture," read a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.
The comment came after the militant group claimed it executed Fan Jinghui, a Chinese national, and Norwegian citizen named Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad. Fan, 50, was the first Chinese known to have been kidnapped by the Islamic State.
In September, the group published a taunting photographs of the two men tagged "for sale." Images in the group's online magazine Dabiq purported to show the bodies of the two captives.
Fan's death in captivity adds a new dimension to China's complicated conversation on terror post-Paris—a conversation that includes sympathy for the victims, resentment over a perceived double standard in the way the world reacted to the attacks, and, now, questions about what role -- if any -- China should play in the fight against the Islamic State.
Immediately after the attacks in Paris, there was here, as elsewhere, an outpouring of sadness and expressions of solidarity. In Shanghai, the landmark Oriental Pearl Tower glowed red, blue and white. A group of top business leaders sent a letter of condolence to the French president. And top leaders quickly denounced the attacks, with President Xi Jinping calling the assault on Paris a "barbarous action."
But the expression of outrage was paired with efforts to immediately link what transpired in Paris to events at home. On the sidelines of last weekend's G-20 meetings, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded to what happened in France by reminding the world that China is "also a victim of terrorism," and naming the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as the culprit.
China has long maintained that ETIM orchestrates terrorist attacks in China, and says the group has links to overseas groups like al-Qaeda. However, foreign security experts question whether ETIM is indeed as cohesive and capable as Beijing charges, and tend to treat mass violence in China as a domestic matter related to China's handling of unrest in Xinjiang.
Wang said the international community must adopt a "united stance" and make China's struggle against ETIM part of an international war on terror. There should be no "double standard," he said.
The comment was soon echoed by President Xi Jinping. “Step up cooperation in counterterrorism. Both symptoms and root causes must be addressed,” he said. “There must not be double standards.”
The idea that the world ignores China's terror plight has resonance here.
In 2014, a group of assailants armed with cleavers, daggers and long knives ambushed passengers at a train station in Kunming, killing 29 and injuring more than 100. Largely blocked from reporting at the scene, foreign reporters shied away, initially, from calling the incident terrorism and used "assailants" instead of "terrorists," angering many Chinese. (The U.S. later called it an "act of terrorism.")
"Certain Western news organizations still chose to view the puddles of innocent blood through tinted glasses, resorting to such means of semantic manipulation as evoking inappropriate associations and placing terrorists under quotation marks," read a state media piece headlined: "West's coverage of Kunming reveals double standard."
It went on to denounce Western reports suggesting China was "exaggerating" domestic threats as "as a pretext to crack down" on Uighurs, a Muslim minority mostly in western China. Uighurs claim they face relentless pressures and discrimination from Beijing.
After Paris, a China Daily editorial struck a similar tone. "In their eyes, only terrorist attacks that happen on Western soil can be called acts of terrorism," it said.
The appeal to nationalist outrage and repeated calls for international cooperation on terrorism have raised questions about what role China could play in future efforts to combat the Islamic State. "Will China be drawn into conflict in the Middle East?" asked the Diplomat, a current-affairs magazine focused on Asia Pacific.
At this point, that seems unlikely. China's government has thus far shied away from the type of expensive, overseas military conflagrations that have dogged the United States, and has stayed on the sidelines as other countries sign up to fight the Islamic State.
At home, it may be a different story. Domestically, China carefully controls the flow of information about terrorist attacks and mass violence. Scenes are locked down, the foreign press blocked, and local press reports scrubbed of details not consistent with the Communist Party line. (A fiery 2013 crash in Tiananmen Square is a telling example.)
Often, what China later identifies as terror attacks are not reported until weeks or months after the fact, when the state media issue brief, triumphant accounts of how terrorists were hunted and captured.
Just hours after Paris, for instance, Chinese officials posted rare pictures of a recent anti-terrorism operation in Xinjiang. "France's Paris was hit by its worst terrorist attack in history, with hundreds dead and injured. On the other side of the world, police in China's Xinjiang [province], after 56 days of pursuing and attacking, carried out a full attack on the terrorists and got great results," read the accompanying text.
Radio Free Asia, a news agency funded by the U.S. government, this week reported that Chinese authorities killed 17 people, including women and children, in connection with a knife attack at a mine in Xinjiang. On Friday, state media announced there were 28 deaths in the raid.
If China were to strike the Islamic State directly, it would have a much harder time controlling the message and "great results" would not be guaranteed. That may be why, as the Web site Tea Leaf Nation notes, Chinese netizens' calls for military action against the Islamic State are quickly being censored.
—Liu Liu reported from Beijing.