Two deadly attacks in China in the weeks leading up to a much-anticipated leadership meeting have ignited debate around the thorny question of what China considers to be terrorism.
State media said the culprit in the latest attack, in which homemade explosives detonated outside a Communist Party building in central China, was 'dissatisfied with society.' Meanwhile, officials and state media have said a suicide attack last week at Beijing's Tiananmen Square was the work of terrorists.
The displays of dissonance come at a sensitive time as the new generation of leaders gather this weekend in Beijing to set China on a path to more sustainable growth and address some of the inequalities that have been exacerbated by the recent decades of breakneck expansion.
Both attacks involved political targets, and both took the lives of bystanders. But the different reactions they have produced, both on the part of authorities and online, has led to questions inside and outside of China about how to characterize acts of violence with political overtones there.
Police in the northern city of Taiyuan arrested a local man in connection with explosions outside the Shanxi provincial Communist Party headquarters, the official Xinhua news agency reported Friday. The suspect, a 41-year-old ex-convict named Feng Zhijun, had confessed to the bombing, Xinhua said.
The Wednesday blasts killed one and left eight others injured. Car windows shattered 100 meters away, and authorities discovered steel balls and circuit boards--evidence of homemade explosives--scattered around the scene.
China's state broadcaster reported Friday night that Mr. Feng, who had spent nine years in prison for theft and confessed to the bombing, perpetrated the attack because 'he was dissatisfied with society.' It wasn't possible to reach Mr. Feng, and it wasn't clear whether he had legal representation.
The bombing followed another attack nine days earlier, in which a sport-utility vehicle plowed through crowds of tourists at Tiananmen Square and burst into flames in front of Beijing's Forbidden City. Five people died, including a family of three inside the vehicle. A top security official later said it was the work of a terrorist group that has been waging a violent separatist campaign in the far northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang.
Although neither the attackers nor authorities have offered specific explanations for either of the attacks, some commentators have drawn distinctions nonetheless.
'There is a difference between 'taking revenge against society' and 'terrorist attacks,' even though both target regular people,' Wang Zhanyang, a political scientist with the Communist Party's Central Institute of Socialism, wrote on his verified account on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogging service. 'If investigations reveal it's the work of Xinjiang separatists, then it's a terrorist attack.'
Attacks using improvised explosives happen from time to time in China, as people seek to take out grievances on government agencies and other institutions, angry over confiscated property, employment disputes and other perceived miscarriages of justice. Such attacks are typically attributed to 'social problems,' with Internet users often blaming the government and sometimes even expressing sympathy for the attackers.
Attacks by members of Xinjiang's mostly Muslim Uighur minority are an exception. Owing to ethnic tensions with China's Han majority and the politics of separatist groups, violence perpetrated by Uighurs is almost uniformly criticized both online and in the traditional media as terrorism.
Chinese state media and Internet users last week joined in slamming the publication of editorials and opinion pieces in foreign media, including The Wall Street Journal, that questioned use of the word 'terrorism' to describe the Tiananmen attack, with some suggesting that China's own ethnic and religious policies were to blame.
'By demonizing the Uighur people as terrorists or criminals, Beijing justifies its crackdowns on the Uighur people as necessary to protect the security of Han Chinese,' Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled ethnic Uighur who heads the World Uighur Congress and is highly critical of China's policies in Xinjiang, wrote in a Journal op-ed article on Monday. 'The enemy of a peaceful future between Uighur and Han Chinese is the Chinese government.'
Pointing to the fact that the passengers of the car were related, other foreign-media commentaries--as well as a handful of Chinese Internet users--suggested the attack could have been motivated by a personal grievance unrelated to the separatist movement.
On Wednesday, Xinhua joined other state media and Foreign Ministry officials in blasting what Beijing has often described as a 'double standard' on terrorism. Pointing to the discovery in the SUV of gas canisters and a flag bearing extremist religious messages, a Xinhua commentary lamented that Western commentators were loath to condemn the attacks because Uighurs were said to be involved.
'But they marched with little hesitation to elaborate their biased reading of life and goings-on in Xinjiang,' the commentary said.
In a meeting on Tuesday with local government officials that included a representative from Xinjiang, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged authorities to 'prevent the frequent occurrence of incidents that attack society's psychological bottom line,' according to a transcript posted to the government's website.
In the aftermath of Wednesday's bombing, some speculated that it, too, might be the work of separatists. Li Wei, one of China's top experts and government advisers on terrorism, noted signs the multiple explosions were coordinated in saying the episode had the characteristics of a terrorist attack.
Friday's announcement of the confession of Mr. Feng, whose surname suggests he is not of Uighur dissent, splashed cold water on theories that the attacks were connected.
Response on social media to the Taiyuan bombing differed markedly from the Tiananmen attack. While some users denounced Mr. Feng for putting innocent lives at risk, many others laid responsibility for the attack at the feet of local officials.
'The government ought to contemplate the source of these conflicts. That's more important than arresting and executing people,' wrote one user on Sina Weibo, where some referred to Mr. Feng as a 'hero' and a 'brother.'
Li Wei, the terrorism expert, said Friday that he stood by his previous view that the Taiyuan bombing resembled a terrorist attack.
'I don't agree with connecting this kind of activity with ethnicity. It doesn't really matter if they are Uighur or Han or whatever ethnicity,' he said, adding that social-media users might have been angrier at the Tiananmen attack because it happened in the center of Beijing and led to more deaths.
Mr. Li also argued the debate was complicated by language, saying that the word for terrorism in Chinese strongly implies ideological motivations, while in English, the term is defined primarily in terms of actions, such as violence against civilians to intimidate a government or a population. For that reason, China's central government maintains an official definition for terrorist activities but not terrorism in general, he said.
In further illustration of the complexity of the debate, a number of Internet users criticized authorities for saying that Mr. Feng was trying to exact revenge on society rather than the party or government.
'He chose the gate to the party headquarters. It's clear he wanted revenge on the party,' wrote one microblogger. 'If he wanted to punish society he would have put his car on a square or in front of a school or supermarket.'
上周，中国国有媒体和互联网用户就抨击了一些外国媒体发表的社论和观点文章。包括《华尔街日报》(The Wall Street Journal)在内的外国媒体此前质疑能否使用“恐怖主义”一词来描述天安门袭击事件，其中一些媒体认为中国自己的民族和宗教政策才是引发问题的原因。
世界维吾尔代表大会(World Uighur Congress)主席热比亚•卡迪尔(Rebiya Kadeer)周一在《华尔街日报》撰写观点文章称，北京将维吾尔族人妖魔化为恐怖分子或罪犯，从而证明有必要通过打击维吾尔族人来保护汉族人的安全。卡迪尔是一名流亡海外的维族人，强烈批评中国政府的新疆政策。卡迪尔认为，维族人与汉族人和平共处的障碍是中国政府。