While the Chinese government has lauded the death of Osama bin Laden as a “milestone” for international anti-terrorism efforts, netizens in China showed far more mixed reactions Tuesday to the al-Qaeda chief’s slaying.
Beijing has used bin Laden’s killing in an American military raid in Pakistan to call for greater international cooperation in the fight against terrorism, which the Chinese authorities have also used to justify crackdowns on ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs in the northwestern region of the country.
While one official newspaper compared bin Laden with “Satan,” online commenters using the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo passed around photos of the mastermind of the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks, with some lauding him as a hero who stood up to America.
“His family were billionaires, and instead of an easy life, he chose great hardship,” wrote Sina Weibo user lishigushi, in an update that was retweeted more than 12,000 times and garnered more than 1,400 comments.
“When he resisted the Soviet Union, he was a hero, but when he resisted America, he was a bad guy,” lishigushi wrote.
“When the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy, it was a mistake, but when the U.S. embassy was bombed, it was terrorism,” said the update, in a reference to the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo.
Thousands of tweets
Keyword searches for “bin Laden” in Chinese were apparently uncensored on the Sina.com microblogging service on Tuesday, with thousands of tweets showing up on searches within the space of a couple of hours.
Sina Weibo user mozatedeng commented on lishigushi’s tweet: “You must face the reality that if you win you’re a king, and if you lose, you’re a bandit!”
Others seemed less sure of how to react, like user gewaladezhanshi, who commented: “Was he a demon? A prince of terror? A hero? An Islamic martyr? History will decide.”
A number of microbloggers cast doubts on whether bin Laden’s death was genuine.
User andylee1211 wondered whether the announcement of the death by President Barack Obama was a political plot by the U.S. government to shore up the weakening dollar.
“We will have to see if anything bad happens in the West for confirmation. If nothing bad happens, then Obama should get an Oscar.”
More cryptically, user xiaoxiangzi08 wrote: “Maybe bin Laden died ages ago. Maybe he will never die.”
The news also prompted a round of apparently satirical tweets, in which dozens of users took up the refrain: “Osama bin Laden is dead. I’m not in the mood to go to work.”
Some offered condolences to all those who had died, without being specific, while others offered tributes to bin Laden.
User yichunde wrote: “No song is really good enough for you, but I will send you a piece of music. When you enter the sea’s embrace, the angels will be waiting to catch you.”
And according to user wojiushiyaojiaxin, “For me, bin Laden is a hero who brought humiliation to America. Bin Laden, I hope you’re not dead. If you really are dead, I will mourn you. You are my hero!”
Rebecca-Cyn added: “Chinese people like bin Laden because he said that China was the one country you couldn’t afford to anger.”
In an apparent attempt to direct public debate, the official China Daily newspaper ran an editorial comparing bin Laden with Satan.
“We lack available conceptual frameworks to understand people such as bin Laden,” said the article, signed by Tao Yanghua of the School of International Studies, Renmin University.
“Terrorism in its essence is a religious phenomenon, which can best be handled by a theological language.”
Tao likened terrorists to a heretical movement “in such a state of fantasy that they leave no room for a rational conversation.”
“There is no sense in arguing that these people are by nature evil,” he wrote. “According to the Holy Bible, even Satan, before his betrayal of God, was an angel. And we should remember that bin Laden was once regarded as a hero in fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”
“Satan chooses to betray God as a result of his pride … and I say it is the same mentality, the same pride, the same egocentricity, underlying bin Laden’s method of self-destruction,” the article said.
Joseph Cheng, politics professor at Hong Kong’s City University, said bin Laden’s death had more of a symbolic meaning than a practical one.
“In recent years, we have seen that the new terrorist threat comes from within developed countries,” Cheng said.
“The last few attacks have been carried out by Muslims from ethnic minorities within the countries themselves.”
Meanwhile, Simon Shen, deputy professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said bin Laden’s death is unlikely to halt al-Qaeda’s activities.
“Al-Qaeda is a very scattered network with branches created in a variety of locations,” Shen said.
“Liaison between the branches is weak, and they basically don’t have the capability to carry out a coordinated, large-scale attack.”
Reported by Dai Weisen for RFA’s Cantonese service and by Ding Xiao for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.