Over the past few months, coverage of the Islamic State has dominated U.S. media outlets. Main stream organizations like MSNBC and Fox News have been discussing terrorism and ISIS more than any other global issue. The last GOP presidential debate focused almost exclusively on ISIS. Two main options for handling terrorism were presented throughout the debate, revealing the broad spectrum of American political ideology: bomb indiscriminately or bomb indiscriminately while forcibly seizing natural resources. America hasn’t seen this level of jingoism since before the invasion of Iraq, although a repeat of that history shouldn’t take anyone by surprise: none of the influential media pundits or politicians who pushed for the destabilizing war against Iraq were ever held accountable for purposefully misleading the public with blatant lies. After no meaningful political backlash, it makes sense why the same methods are being used by the same people to portray an estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters as an existential threat to all of Western civilization. As if ISIS is on the verge of overthrowing representative democracy in America and imposing Sharia law on 300 million unwilling people. In light of how reactionary and repetitive the American media has been on this issue, I felt it would be interesting to examine how the Chinese media and commenting netizens are reacting to ISIS generally. After all, China is likewise threatened by ISIS and often cites anti-terrorism as one reason it extensively censors the internet. And while similarities to the U.S. propaganda model exist in the tightly controlled media environment of China, interesting differences in national consciousness become apparent when narrowly focusing on the issue of ISIS.
The most reactionary and attention grabbing differences in how people view the issue of ISIS in China vs. The United States are to be found in the comment sections of major news outlets. Comments can be an illustrative glimpse into the collective unconsciousness of the mainstream.
Obama announced at the Pentagon in mid-December that America was hitting ISIS “harder than ever.” In the comment section of a Chinese news piece reporting Obama’s announcement we can see Chinese netizens’ opinions about the increased airstrikes. User Wu Hui Sheng [呉惠声] writes,
Translation: The American military has been conducting airstrikes for over a year, in total they’ve dropped in excess of 20,000 bombs/missiles, if one bomb kills one person, 20,000 members of ISIS should have died, but those terrorists get stronger with more bombings. They don’t go to America to take revenge, but have gone to France slaughtering civilians, even incurring more airstrikes by the French. Makes you not sure whether to laugh or cry.
So far, in all the comments I’ve dug through on American news websites pertaining to ISIS, I haven’t seen anyone actually reference the number of bombs America has already dropped in Syria and Iraq. According to the United States Defense Department, Wu Hui Sheng’s number would have been roughly correct. CNN also reported 20,000 bombs in early December in an article detailing how the United States is dropping so many munitions that it’s actually running out. Unfortunately there is no comment section on the CNN article; however, American news sites rarely if ever talk about how many airstrikes are actually going on in Iraq and Syria. Not to mention where the bombs are falling or who exactly they are targeting. Despite the lack of evidence that increased bombings are in the process of achieving stated objectives, there seems to be no shortage of Americans calling for increased bombings:
I took my example here from the General Discussion section on a random MSNBC article about ISIS. I could literally spend the rest of the day finding comments advocating more bombings. Even without going to Fox News. None of those people seem to reference how many bombs have been dropped, or what concrete success those bombs achieved.
From another article on Tencent QQ, a popular Chinese news website and social network, we can see another prominent aspect of Chinese culture when discussing Syria: the call for “harmony.” For those who don’t know, harmony is a word which is itself steeped in propaganda in China.
User Wu Lan Tuo Ya [乌兰托娅] writes,
Translation: A flourishing world, a disorderly world, either way the peaceful common people are always the ones to suffer. The common people’s requests are actually very low, only to have a family who can eat their fill and wear warm clothes. But even these simple requests cannot be fulfilled, why not give them a harmonious homeland.
Whereas America has a long history of warfare and Presidential announcements of foreign occupation, China remained relatively isolated until recent border disputes with neighboring countries over trade routes and natural resources in the South China Sea. At least publicly, Chinese leaders long promoted the idea that China would coexist peacefully as long as foreign countries respected a “mutual non-involvement in internal policies.” [互不干涉内政]. This seems to be the message from the Chinese government as far as Middle Eastern foreign policy goes.
The final noticeable difference between comments is the aggressiveness of language. On Reddit, any time ISIS is brought up you are sure to see some F-Bombs dropped.
And there are many more examples.
In China, I’ve noticed that casual swearing is not as common as in America, but that doesn’t mean that China is immune to its own profanity laden version of the two minutes hate. Angsty Chinese F-Bombs seem to be reserved for Japan:
In the comment section on this article, a level approaching the U.S. hatred for ISIS can be seen for Japan. The user [白天不懂夜的黑(The day doesn’t understand night’s darkness)] writes,
Fuck off tiny Japan (小日本 , or tiny Japan, is a derogatory name for the country)! Don’t fucking fart in our homeland’s business. Sooner or later we’ll destroy you.
Pretty much all the comments on this article are of the same caliber of penetrating intellect.
The final difference I’d like to point out between Chinese and American media narratives concerning ISIS is the prominent placement of stories about ISIS on the front pages of American newspapers. Obviously more people are conditioned to care about the atrocities of ISIS in America, which leads to more headlines. But in China, it’s truly amazing how conspicuously absent ISIS is from the front pages of newspapers. Whereas in America it doesn’t matter if it’s The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, etc. you can count on seeing at least one ISIS related story on the front pages.
In a CNN video looking back on 2015, terrorism and ISIS related stories are repeatedly mentioned throughout.
While on the other side of the world, the nationalistic Chinese news website The Observer [观察者] didn’t mention ISIS once in its 2015 retrospective. Albeit nothing of real substance was actually covered in that retrospective and the top story for them was a sex video filmed in a changing room in San LiTun (a famous area of Beijing) that went viral in China and sparked open controversy about China’s nationwide ban on pornography. The comments on that article are nevertheless amusing, most people claiming they would never watch such trash. Meanwhile it’s The Observer’s most clicked on story in 2015, with thousands of comments.
My original point is still valid though, if you look at the headlines of China’s top news agencies it’s much rarer to find ISIS topping the headlines.
In America it’s now impossible to imagine a day of news not involving ISIS. So much free publicity is given to the pathological Islamic group that literally any psychopath in America with extremist views is bound to have learned about them. The extensive coverage might even account for why so many Westerners are joining ISIS. After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity. I’ve yet to hear of a Chinese citizen dropping their life and joining the Islamic State. So think twice about the media you consume, and the automatic reactions it conjures up inside you. Those reactions might be exactly what someone wants.