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Chinese reactions to bin Laden's death mixed

Published May 14. 2011 09:01AM

I was sitting in a hostel café in south China's Yunnan Province enjoying a late breakfast with my Chinese-German girlfriend, Layla, when I heard the news: Osama bin Laden had been killed. I'd been eavesdropping on a conversation between two foreigners sitting behind me and had to take a moment to let the information work its way through my brain.

Convinced it was a joke, I headed for the hostel's TV lounge. But there it was, a BBC special report: Osama bin Laden, Dead.

A wave of disbelief washed over me, the same sort of wave I'd felt that September day 10 years go when I first heard bin Laden's name.

Soon, a small crowd had gathered in front of the TV. Some smiled, but most just stared wide-eyed and attentive with oh-my-god expressions on their faces. The few details available at the time were repeated like a broken record for the better part of an hour. President Barack Obama's announcement played, then played again.

America's reaction was predictable. People were in the streets celebrating. The American flag waved proudly. A ceremony was later planned at Ground Zero. America's Western allies gave words of praise for America's accomplishment. But I was more curious to see how the Chinese - the government, the people and the always-opinionated, shadowy netizens on the Web would respond.

Overall, the Chinese have given a collective shrug of indifference towards bin Laden's death. Chinese friends in my close social circle said they heard about the news but really weren't interested in the details. They didn't feel safer, nor did they feel less safe. China, some said, had very little at stake in what they consider America's war against the terrorists.

"I'm just not interested in politics," said one of my female Chinese friends without providing any elaboration.

This isn't surprising. In a country where people don't have the right to vote and guaranteed civil liberties are few, political indifference is common. Disregard for anything remotely political that does not directly affect the average Chinese person's daily life is the norm. Rising consumer inflation and an increasing standard of living are on every Chinese person's mind; America killing the most wanted terrorist in the world isn't.

Regarding bin Laden's death, Chinese media has been supportive but not too supportive, and far from congratulatory. Comments from Chinese political bodies have been vague, referring to bin Laden's death as a "positive development" in America's war. Already, the media's focus for the most part is back on China's booming economy and its rise as a global power.

This apathy and second-paging the issue isn't necessarily, at least in an official capacity, a snub to America. China's concerns are just elsewhere. Above all else, maintaining "steady and rapid" - two of the Communist Party's favorite words - economic growth graces the peak of China's laundry list, especially as its GDP and overall global economic position begin to gain ground on America's top spot.

But like all things in Chinese society revolving around the Yin and Yang of light and dark, positive and negative, there are those who are much less unenthused about America's actions. A Chinese friend directed my attention to these more negative views in the Chinese blogosphere, a realm where people hide behind user names and make sometimes ill-thought out remarks.

They're called China's "angry youth," young bloggers and web users who view America as a roadblock to China's eventual rise as a world power. Following news that bin Laden had been killed, they took to the Web with comments like "yet another anti-American hero is lost" or "now the only terrorist left is the United States." Some remarks do congratulate American on a job well done. Some even take jabs at Chinese political figures.

After perusing this hodge-podge of negativity, I couldn't help but chuckle - not because the comments were in any way funny, but because of the hypocrisy of the people behind them. Chances are, as ardent as these anti-American sentiments seem, if you asked any one of these angry younglings if they want, or already have, an iPad or iPhone 4, or if one of their favorite music artists is Lady Gaga, or if they've seen the movie "Avatar" more than once, the answer would be an unequivocal "yes."

These hateful posts don't come from poor Chinese who pay little attention to world events and care little for Western trends and fads. They're not the majority opinions from China's more than 500 million Internet users. These are the rants of a small sect of an educated, tech literate, if misinformed, youth culture that is indeed angry, but not entirely at America. They're just unable, or unwilling, to direct their anger at their real targets - some of China's leaders - out of fear of reprisal.

Even as ridiculous and offensive as some of those limited remarks have been, concerning the question of being more safe or less safe with bin Laden dead, I agree with the Chinese. Our overall security probably isn't going to change. As an American living abroad and traveling to remote regions of China, I certainly would be a prime target for radicals, a lone red, white and blue colored sheep away from the safety and confines of its flock and home pasture, yet I don't necessarily feel more safe now than I did before bin Laden was taken out of the picture.

I am relieved that the question "Where is bin Laden?" has finally been answered. I'm also disheartened and angered to read reactions like those from China's youth, since these young people could one day have a greater voice in a rising China. Above all else, I'm anxious to see what the future holds in a world without bin Laden.

In the first hours following Obama's announcement that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces information was scarce. To top off the growing list of questions I had, my girlfriend added one more: Was I happy bin Laden was dead? I thought it over.

No, I wasn't happy, at least not in the same sense that I'm happy when Penn State, my alma mater, beats Ohio State in football. It wasn't the same happiness I felt when I was home for a month this spring after living abroad for a year and a half.

The only thing I was happy about was that a decade-long manhunt to capture or kill a true villain had come to an end. This occasion, as momentous as it may seem, doesn't mean we can rush out and put up a "Mission Accomplished" banner. The war on terror is far from over. But bin Laden's death provides a certain amount of closure and a much-needed morale boost for America. Faced with a still unstable economic situation and tepid employment growth, America has many challenges to face - but finding bin Laden is no longer one of them.

Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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