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Chinese Bloggers on VT Shooting

Collective Guilt and Anger

NAM, commentary, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Apr 27, 2007

Editors Note: The aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings reverberates through the blogosphere. NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein reports on some Chinese blogs.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech carnage, Time and other media reported on South Koreans' "collective guilt." In contrast, many in China expressed collective relief and anger at a false report by Chicago Sun-Times.

Hours after the V.T. shooting, when the shooter's ethnicity was identified only by the vague word "Asian," Michael Sneed (female) at the Chicago Sun-Times was quick to initiate suspicion against a Chinese student. Details of how Sneed changed that report multiple times can be found on journalist Rebecca MacKinnon's blog, RConversation.

Whether Sneed wrote the story, that later proved false, for quick credit or some other purpose is anyone's guess. As a reader (and one with Chinese ethnicity), I shake my head at Sneed's apparently lax and unprofessional conduct, but have no basis to accuse her of any ethnic bias. However not all Chinese feel the same.

China's government responded quickly. The day after the shooter's identity was confirmed, on April 18, the spokesperson for Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Liu Jian-cao said, "The irresponsible report of an American media violated professional ethics of journalists and was completely wrong. We have requested related parties to eliminate its baneful impact."

On xinhuanet.com, the website of China's official media, 31 reader responses were posted below the report of Liu's statement. Most of them angrily demand an apology by the American media to the Chinese people. One calls Sneed's report "another poor show of America's freedom of the press." Another questions, "China is a peace-loving country; why does America always bear a grudge against China?"

A lone dissenting voice appears among the furious protests: "Regardless Chinese or Korean, this (shooting) was an individual case; nationality and ethnicity are irrelevant."

Also on xinhuanet.com, an article titled, "On a Nation's Image Portrayal after Reading about the American Campus Shooting" speculates on the reasons for the "Chinese shooter" rumor. "The international image of Chinese causes easy suspicion," the article says, and this is "partly because we didn't pay strong attention to portraying our nation's (positive) image, or didn't portray it successfully."

Is that so? Growing up in China, all my formal education emphasized that the nation's image and interest are far more important than a person's. And this isn't just a Communist tradition; the tradition goes back thousands of years, so long that it has almost melted into our blood. Thus there was no surprise in the shame from my fellow Chinese when we first heard the rumor of a Chinese shooter, or in the relief when the rumor proved false. Not all ethnicities have such a tradition. Had the shooter been white or black it is unlikely any collective apology would ever have been raised. It is an interesting exercise to think about all the different ethnic and national backgrounds the shooter might have had, and how those different groups would react. Would Italians respond the same as the French? It seems unlikely. Certainly few places would take something like this more to heart than Korea and China.

This tradition seems to be weakening among overseas Chinese who embrace western individualism. Xinhuanet.com reported on April 20 that "on a popular website for overseas Chinese students, mitbbs.com, countless posts lash out at the Chicago Sun-Times," but I find this an exaggeration. Quite a number of posts on mitbbs.com are indeed related to either the Virginia Tech shooting or the Chicago Sun-Times incident. A couple of postings cite officials at the Chinese Embassy in the United States blaming "some American media for damaging China's image and hurting the nation." However, I found only two "lashing out" posts: one demands "Chicago Sun-Times apologize to all Chinese!" which received no response; a second one, dated April 18, provided a link to Chicago Sun-Times's contact page, and proposes, "Make your voices heard that we as a community are hurt and offended by their unprofessional conduct." Again, I saw no responses. Hardly "countless." In fact, there were many more posts on gun control issues.

It is hard to come to terms with such a horrific event, perhaps harder still to realize there is no one against whom to vent one's anger. What culture should take responsibility for these actions? What culture should be blamed for these actions? The real question this raises in my mind is, if a nation is willing to feel collective guilt, does that mean they will be blamed?

Poignantly, the shooter showed no deference to his victims' ethnicity. Among those killed were a young ethnic Chinese man and a young woman of Korean origin. Surely their faces reflected the shooter's as he took aim. But that did not stop him.




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