China scrambling to unplug anti-Japan hate speech

Chinese social media platforms have shut down radical nationalist posts promoting hatred of Japan after a stabbing attack on June 24 that injured a Japanese mother and child at a school bus stop in Suzhou, west of Shanghai, according to media reports.

A female bus attendant who tried to protect the Japanese nationals was killed in the melee, the reports said.

An unemployed Chinese man in his 50s carried out the attack. His personal difficulties appear to have made him susceptible to ultranationalist online “influencers” who specialize in stoking animosity toward Japanese and Americans to attract followers and generate revenue.

The event marked the second high-profile knife attack on foreign residents in China in a single month. On June 10, four American college instructors were stabbed in a park in the city of Jilin in China’s northeast.

There have been several knife attacks recently in China, most of them against other Chinese, according to press reports. Unlike Americans, ordinary Chinese do not have easy access to guns so violence often involves knives rather than firearms.

One long-time American resident in China told Asia Times the spate of knife attacks could be attributed to the stress caused by economic difficulties including loss of income that is driving many Chinese men toward desperation.

There was an outpouring of sympathy for the Suzhou victims and admiration for the bus attendant, Hu Youping, who has been praised as a heroine in both China and Japan. But there was also hostile and cynical commentary on Chinese social media.

Writing on the Pekingnology Substack, founder and editor Xichen Wang, a veteran of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, wrote:

Recently, a few users [of social media] have taken advantage of certain events to incite extreme nationalist sentiments by distorting, exaggerating, or even fabricating content to post inappropriate remarks. Examples include promoting ‘anti-Japanese traitor eradication,’ calling for the establishment of a ‘modern-day Boxer Rebellion,’ spreading defamatory claims that the school bus staff who died rescuing others in Suzhou were ‘Japanese spies,’ and fabricating extreme populist statements such as ‘it would be best if all of Japan sank, leading to early racial extinction.’”

In response to such extremist commentary, Douyin, NetEase, Tencent, Weibo and other Chinese social media operators cracked down.

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, said “These comments have disrupted the positive and peaceful atmosphere of the platform and even incited unlawful behavior.” NetEase issued a statement asking users to report inappropriate and harmful expressions of extreme nationalist sentiment and incitement of conflict between China and Japan. Tencent has reportedly dealt with more than 800 violations of its social media platform rules.

China’s mouthpiece media also made its position clear, with the state-run People’s Daily writing that “We will also not accept the hype of ‘xenophobia’ and hate speech… This is unacceptable…”

Well-known commentator Hu Xijin, a former editor of the Communist Party-run Global Times, said that China “must avoid excessively exaggerating external challenges and hostility online, which turns extreme nationalism into a commodity of hating America and Japan, blaming most of China’s issues on external factors.”

A Japanese trade delegation led by senior Japanese politician Yohei Kono brought the extremism issue up at a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng in Beijing on July 1. According to the Japanese press, Kono asked if the attacker specifically targeted Japanese nationals. The vice premier replied that he did not.

The official position of the Chinese government is that the stabbings in Suzhou and Jilin were both “isolated” incidents.

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun wrote that “The Japanese Embassy in China has urged its citizens to stay vigilant in the wake of the knife attack in Suzhou, as well as a recent series of stabbings in Chinese subways and parks.”

Numerous Japanese commentators on social media and in the mainstream press blamed the incident on what they call anti-Japanese indoctrination in Chinese schools and propaganda in China’s state-run media.

In this case, “indoctrination” appears to mean teaching the history of the Japanese invasion of China, including the notorious Nanjing Massacre while “propaganda” likely means stating China’s position on the disputed Daioyu (Senkaku) Islands, Taiwan and other foreign policy issues.

Meanwhile, random violence continues against ethnic Chinese in the West as Western politicians crank up their own anti-China rhetoric. On July 1, The New Zealand Herald reported that a woman started yelling racial slurs at a 16-year-old Chinese-New Zealand boy on a bus in Auckland and then attacked him with a metal rod.

Three of the boy’s teeth were knocked out and two more damaged. A photo, apparently taken by another passenger with a cell phone, shows his bloodied face and hands raised in defense.

Other passengers, some of them reportedly also ethnic Chinese, can also be seen in the photo but not the assailant. Only one of them intervened in the apparently unprovoked, racially motivated attack. The upper part of the boy’s face is blacked out to maintain his privacy. The police said they are working hard to locate the assailant.

In a short video report carried under the “Hu Says” title on Global Times the following day, Hu Xijin wrote:

“A 16-year-old Chinese student was suddenly attacked with a steel rod on a public bus in Auckland, New Zealand, last Friday, resulting in severe facial injuries and the loss of three teeth. Only a 75-year-old man intervened to protect the victim. Reports from Chinese media suggest that the elderly man was also Chinese. When the attacker tried to get off the bus, the injured Chinese student asked the driver not to let her leave, but the driver still opened the door.

Despite there being over ten people on the New Zealand bus, the woman attacker managed to escape and has not been apprehended. The weak response of the passengers on the public bus towards the woman attacker is disgrace to New Zealand’s civil society.”

Perhaps, but the story is not that simple. In a more detailed report carried on Australian news website, also on July 2, senior reporter Frank Chung wrote:

Details of the alleged attack on Friday morning – the Maori New Year public holiday – were first shared on Chinese social media platform WeChat by local news blogger Mao Peng.

According to the Chinese-language report, the teen was on board the bus going from East Auckland towards the city when he was attacked by a ‘woman in her 40s who looked Maori’.

… a 75-year-old Chinese man on the bus who rushed to the boy’s aid, said ‘more than a dozen’ other Chinese people sitting on the bus ‘sat in their seats and did nothing’ despite him yelling for help.”

Photos accompanying the report show the 75-year-old man and the steel rod, which he and the boy wrestled away from her. The faces of the boy and other passengers are blocked out.

Following the knife attack on American teachers in Jilin, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns wrote on X:

“I am angered and deeply troubled by the stabbing of 3 US citizens + a non-citizen resident of Iowa in Jilin, China. A US Consular Officer visited the 4 in Jilin Hospital today where they are receiving treatment. We are doing all we can to help them & hope for their full recovery.”

Burns is not the only one who is deeply troubled by what China has officially maintained was an isolated incident against American nationals. That compares to thousands of reported anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents reported in the US after then-president Donald Trump referred to the Covid-19 virus as “Kung-Flu” and the “Chinese virus” in June 2020.

According to documented research on the attacks, they included racially motivated murders committed by knifing, slashing with a box cutter, beating, kicking and stomping and even hitting a grandmother over the head with a rock, pushing a young woman in front of a subway train and at least one mass shooting.

The number of such crimes and incidents has declined sharply since Trump left office, but senior researcher Janelle Wong of AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] Data told NBC news last year that “Anti-Asian hate crimes … are often tied to national security or other kinds of US foreign policy that heightened attention to Asian Americans in the US.”

“We will expect them to go up again at some point, depending on what the national and international context is and the degree to which places in Asia are cast as a threat to the US,” Wong said amid fears the attacks could spike again during a second Trump presidency.

Hu Xijin wrote on Weibo that “Chinese people face far more risks outside their country than foreigners do in China.” That is probably true. But given what happened in the US during the pandemic, it is somewhat hopeful to see China’s internet platforms and news media trying to silence the extremists and thus defuse racial attacks on foreigners in China before they become a trend.

Follow this writer on X: @ScottFo83517667

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