China’s “New Kind of Terrorism” is Winning Hearts and Minds
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China’s “New Kind of Terrorism” is Winning Hearts and Minds

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The paralyzed petitioner from Shandong Province who set off a homemade bomb at Terminal 3 in Beijing’s Capital Airport over the weekend is finding a sympathetic audience online and in some of China’s official media. But, many are left wondering if this is the new face of domestic terrorism in China.

In the Xinhua Daily Telegraph, Judge Shu Rui wrote an editorial arguing that, “Each person who feels wronged, could be a time bomb…. For the sake of security, the entire community has a responsibility to emphasize ‘injustice.’”

Shu then goes on to call the act a “new kind of terrorism.”

Although Ji Zhongxing, the bomber, was arguably committing an act of terrorism, he certainly wasn’t the first one.

For the past three years, China has seen several high-profile suicide bombings from disenchanted citizens and petitioners, all of whom receive at least some minor sympathy from the public. In Jiangxi Province in 2011, for instance, explosions ripped through three government buildings, killing three people, including the bomber, Qian Mingqi. It was later revealed that Qian’s vicious act was preceded by him spending a decade trying unsuccessfully to seek redress from authorities after his land was seized without compensation.

Despite the violence and deaths the explosions caused, Qian won over a lot of the public. One popular online commenter, for instance, said “Qian was no Bin Laden, he was one of the weak.”

A similar—though disputed—suicide bombing case in May of 2012 killed four people in Yunnan Province. More recently, in January of this year a suicide bomber in Guangzhou took his own life and injured several others over wages he was owed.

In the media firestorm that followed this weekend’s bombing, Ji’s case has become well known to the Chines public­­­­: his fight with police that left him with a broken spine, his eight years of petitioning for redress and, of course, his homemade firework explosives. As such, many have shown their support for his actions, some going so far as to call him a hero.

Others simply capitalized on the idea; the Beijing Public Security Bureau announced on its official Weibo that two other people were arrested for similar threats, one from a 39-year-old man who threatened to bomb the airport to over a land dispute.

In a country without an independent judiciary and a beleaguered press, this type of costly civil disobedience may be more difficult to explain away than the constant social unrest in China’s western regions.

As such, the government acted quickly to make sure the public knew this type of needless violence will not be tolerated. The Beijing News reported that, on Monday alone, police in the city had seized 327 firearms, 631 imitation guns, around 60 crossbows and over 1,100 knives. Public support is one thing, but these outbursts have, in the past, taken deadly tolls.

More specifically, Ji’s case has been compared to the infamous Yang Jia, who—after taking a beating from police for riding an “unlicensed bicycle” and failing to have his complaints recognized by the courts—stabbed and killed six police officers. Unlike the peaceful Ji, who warned people away to prevent loss of life, Yang was armed with Molotov cocktails, a hammer and knives. But what was most fascinating was that even after committing such horrendous acts against public servants, Yang became an internet hero in China and abroad, before his one-hour trial and subsequent execution in 2008. Indeed, a movie was even made about him.

Rather than the vitriolic rhetoric that often accompanies attacks in Xinjiang or self-immolation in Tibet, Chinese media have cast this weekend’s events in a comparatively flattering light. In fact, Shu’s editorial is a call to arms, entitled, “Everyone should take discontent seriously.” Support—and a fair bit of scorn—poured in from all corners of China’s highly-censored online world.

Even the famously nationalistic Global Times published a somewhat sympathetic report, providing a timeline of Ji Zhongxing’s search for justice; albeit, they later published an editorial saying, “Society should decisively oppose these threats to form a balance. If the attitude remains divided, a catastrophe may happen.” Still, their reaction is a far cry from their lambasting of blind lawyer and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng—whose only crime was escaping his extrajudicial imprisonment.

Popular social commentator Luo Changping compared China’s ongoing battle with petitioners as a “hopeless cycle of death,” and this sentiment has been echoed by many online, along with a sense that this type of violence is inevitable and far from over.

Though suicide bombings and murder sprees are hardly an acceptable form of protest in the eyes of Chinese citizens, there’s no arguing that it is an effective way to attention. Not only that, in Ji’s case, it worked. It was announced earlier this week that the southern city of Dongguan will reopen the 2005 case and finally reinvestigate his claims.

Little seems to have changed for petitioners in China, but compassion for this incident and similar bombings may turn out to be a dangerous precedent. The usual rhetoric from the Chinese state media is largely moot; after all, terrorists are meant to imbue terror, not sympathy.

Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for China Power and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese.

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