After Deadly Knife Attack, China Debates Meaning Of 'Terrorism'

Outrage in China has followed the Kunming attack that killed 29, not just for the violence, but for the way the West has (and hasn't) defined what happened. Making sense of the *T* word.

Outpouring after the attack that killed 29
Outpouring after the attack that killed 29
Ni Weifeng and Zhang Hong

BEIJING — The deadly attack by knife-wielding assailants at Kunming train station has brought enormous grief to the Chinese public. Nobody with even the slightest bit of humanity can ignore the tragic loss of 29 innocent lives and the injuries of more than 100 others.

And yet over the past week, some Western press reports about the attack have used quotation marks around the word “terrorist,” causing further grief and anger among many Chinese readers.

In a People’s Daily article entitled “Absolutely Hypocritical And Heartless,” the government-run Chinese newspaper lambasts those in the English-language international press for their “cynical and confusing logic as well as their ulterior motives of sowing discord.”

If targeted killing of innocent civilians is not terrorism, then what is it?

But first, let’s look more closely at whether the American and British press singled out this case in China or whether it simply has a tendency to avoid the “terrorism” label.

The “awkward” New York Times

On Feb. 24, a series of bombings in Iraq killed 38 people and wounded more than 50 others. Nowhere in The New York Times coverage did the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” appear. The newspaper instead used the words “suicide bomber” and “militant.”

And after a twin bomb attack in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, the American newspaper again avoided the word “terrorist,” choosing instead “attacker.” Similarly, an article about a grenade blast in a Peshawar, Pakistan cinema that killed 11 people and wounded 25 did not employ words such as “terror” or “terrorist.”

Does the American press deliberately play down terrorist acts that occur in other countries? Let’s also review examples in which Americans were targeted.

On Sept. 11, 2012, a deadly attack against the U.S. embassy in Benghazi killed the American ambassador, among other victims. But it was not until Sept. 20 that year that the U.S. government formally used the phrase “terrorist attack” to describe the incident.

Instead, up to that point, The New York Times repeatedly characterized it as a “deadly attack,” which involves much less emotion.

It appears that The New York Times only uses “terrorist” or “terrorism” in its coverage if a terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for an attack, or if a government institution the newspaper trusts defines it as such.

The Boston Marathon bombing last April is still fresh in people’s minds. On the day of the attack, The New York Times avoided the word “terrorism” in its coverage and specifically noted that President Barack Obama’s initial comments about the incident also avoided the word.

Qualifying someone or something as “terrorist” isn’t just a trivial choice of words. The U.S. government can freeze the assets of individuals or groups identified as terrorists and prohibit American citizens from doing business with them.

This is why the American embassy in China used such uncomfortable phrases in its first statement about the Kunming station murders. It characterized the brutal attack as a “horrible and totally meaningless act of violence.”

When pressed by Chinese reporters during the regular news briefing on March 3, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki used the word “terrorism,” but whe qualified it by saying, “based on the information reported by the Chinese media.”

The “academic” BBC

The BBC, the British broadcaster that regards itself as fair and impartial, has specific guidance for its reporters on these matters.

“Unfortunately, there is no agreed or universal consensus on what constitutes a terrorist, or a terrorist attack,” its guidelines say. “The value judgement frequently implicit in the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist group’ can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality.”

The guidelines continue: “That does not mean we should emasculate our reporting or otherwise avoid conveying the reality and horror of what has occurred. But we should consider the impact our use of language may have on our reputation for objective journalism amongst our many audiences.”

In other words, a BBC reporter is expected to describe what has occurred and to avoid actively labeling the act or perpetrator because “labels applied to groups can sometimes hinder rather than help.”

BBC’s editorial guidelines also go so far as to suggest alternate language. “We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent, and militant.”

Of course, not all English-language press operate like The New York Times or the BBC. Numerous publications such as The Financial Times, The Economist and Time magazine all unequivocally characterized the Kunming incident as a terrorist attack.

Is the dispute over the quotation marks just a fuss? Everyone is entitled to their own judgment. For most readers in the world, two attitudes would probably help them most — one is to have “more sense, less anger,” and another is “Don't do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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