Written by J. Michael Cole

By now we’ve all heard about Saturday night’s bloodbath at the Kunming Railway Station, where a dozen individuals wearing black uniforms descended upon innocent civilians and slashed away at them with long blades, killing 29 and injuring more than 130. The targeting of civilians is a terribly worrying development.

The reaction of the party-state has also been perturbing, especially the vitriol that was immediately unleashed against reporting by Western media. Since the attack, major media outlets in China have decried what they saw as “double standards” in their reporting on what Beijing immediately called “terrorism.” Critics have singled out CNN for a headline that initially put terrorism in inverted quotes (“Knife-wielding ‘terrorists’ kill 28, injure dozens at China train station”). Along with CNN, The Associated Press (AP), the New York Times and the Washington Post have also been criticized for “presenting their audiences and their readership with a distorted view of events.”

Besides the quotation marks around the word terrorism, Chinese critics also took exception with passages like “described by the authorities as” to qualify the term “terrorism,” and “attackers” rather than “terrorists.” All of this was evidence, as an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece People’s Daily argued, that the reporting was “dishonest and appeared to be directed by ulterior motives.” Some of the offended Chinese pointed out that Western media would not have hesitated to describe a similar attack as “terrorism” had it occurred in the West, citing 9/11, the Madrid Bombings and the London Attacks as examples.

Of course, such accusations conveniently omit the fact that early reports on 9/11 referred to the first plane crash as an accident, while 9/11, Madrid and London occurred after al-Qaeda had declared war on the West (the fatwas of 1996 and 1998) and already struck several civilian targets (e.g., the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania). They also ignore the standard description in China of Xinjiang-related violence as terrorism, whereas incidents resulting in large numbers of casualties, but perpetrated by Han Chinese, are referred to as the acts by “disgruntled” or “mentally challenged” individuals. (By no means is Western media blameless, as with the constant reference to attacks by Palestinian militants and Hezbollah fighters on Israeli military targets as “terrorism.”)

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows that headlines are rarely the product of extensive managerial debate. Rather, they are produced by the copy editors on duty when news breaks. I have learned form my experience as a deputy news editor at a national newspaper that sometimes editors are simply sloppy. Assuming there was indeed something “wrong” with the headlines about Saturday’s attack, it is unlikely that cynicism, double standards, or sloppiness were the culprits. The reasons are more complex, though it is almost certain that the editorial decisions were not made with the intent to downplay the severity of the attacks, or the suffering of ordinary Chinese victims.

We should note from the outset that the articles that were singled out by Chinese critics to lecture Western media on journalistic ethics were all early reports. China being China, access to information about the attack was limited, and became more so after the CCP censored reporting on the attack and instructed agencies to rely on official information provided by state-run Xinhua. The quotation marks and Western media’s reluctance to use the term terrorism may simply have been a reference to early claims by Xinhua — something akin to “‘Terror’ attacks kill 29: Xinhua,” in which case the term terror is attributed to Xinhua. While there was ample photo material of the aftermath of the attack, no footage from, say, surveillance cameras at the train station, was available to help identify the perpetrators. Moreover, unlike the 9/11, Madrid and London attacks, no group had claimed responsibility for the rampage. The only sources available, therefore, were official statements by state-run Chinese media.

Given the highly propagandistic nature of Chinese media, Xinhua was hardly a reliable source of information or the final word on whether the attack indeed constituted terrorism, let alone that it was perpetrated by Uyghur “separatists.” Analysts have since pointed out that the attackers likely had ties to extremists in Southeast Asia and may have trained at camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, which means that the group’s ideology and modus operandi are unlikely to reflect the preferences of ordinary Uyghurs, who will nevertheless be at the receiving end of the Chinese security apparatus. Moreover, the blades utilized in the attack were markedly different from the ornate ones used by Uyghurs, and the Islamic flag reportedly found at the scene was a crude reproduction and was of the wrong color, discrepancies that are not mentioned in official Chinese reporting of the matter.

Hence the fully warranted decision to put terrorists between quotation marks, or to refer to the incident as “attacks” until enough evidence was gathered — and that evidence will only selectively be made public — to confirm that the massacre met the definition of terrorism: The targeting of civilians with the intent to force a government to change its policies. Until proven otherwise, Saturday’s attack could have been perpetrated by a nihilistic group of Han cultists. Though this appears unlikely now, early reporting on the matter simply could not make the call.

But for Chinese critics, all of this was evidence of double standards: Western outlets’ refusal to swallow early (and unproven) claims that this was terrorism and an act of savagery by Xinjiang separatists was evidence of discrimination against Chinese, of a Western plot to insult and belittle China.

Aware of the preposterous state of their media (ranked 173rd worldwide), Chinese critics and apologists have decided to lash out against Western media, as if they were to blame for the paucity of information about the attack, for the poor reliability of official Chinese information, and for the lack of transparency in Chinese law enforcement. Western media are far from perfect, but the targeting of investigative journalists by the CCP in the past year is evidence enough that their efforts and refusal to buy the official line make the Chinese leadership highly uncomfortable. Their coverage of Saturday’s attack was yet another occasion for the CCP to clamp down on the foreign press.

And if the Chinese want to talk about double standards in the press, here’s a headline from a Feb. 26, 2014, article by Xinhua: “‘Taiwan independence’ a dead end: spokesman.” Note that the inverted commas are around Taiwan independence, not dead end. In this case, the quotes are intended to replace “so-called,” and the headline writer follows strict political guidelines imposed by the CCP, which negate the very possibility that Taiwan can be and is independent.

Perhaps it is common practice in Chinese media to use commas to express cynicism, but that isn’t the case in the West. This could possibly be a case of conflicting modes of thinking, miscomprehension that, sadly, risks exacerbating civilizational tensions at a time when dialogue and understanding are urgently needed.

If simple inverted commas are now the stuff of news and a source of anger against the West, we have every reason to apprehend the future.

J Michael Cole is a Washington DC and Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.