Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Views on Bin Laden's Death in Zhaotong, China


The announcement of Bin Laden's death is obviously the big news of the moment in many places, but what about China?

Josh Chin for The Wall Street Journal's "China Real Time Report" posted an article about the Chinese reaction.  The article was based on comments found on Twitter and Sina Weibo, the most popular Twitter-like service (though with some different features) in China.  Evan Osnos of the The New Yorker also posted on the Chinese reaction based on what some people were writing on Weibo.  Both pieces share some interesting views expressed by people in China on Monday.  For example, Evan Osnos writes:
As news spread Monday, there was some celebration on the Chinese Web, but also a note of chilliness toward the U.S. than I didn't anticipate. Zhang Xin, the director of the China Central Television’s National Security and Military Channel posted of bin Laden: “As a billionaire, he didn’t want to live a comfortable life, but chose to challenge the superpower, chose to live the life of a caveman. What was he trying to do? Laden was the greatest national hero in Arab history. Using his own power to fight the most powerful country in the world, America….Whether Laden is dead for real or not, it’s not important anymore. He has already become a spirit, an anti-American system of thought.”
However, neither of the two above posts commented on the relative volume of comments regarding Bin Laden's death -- a key measure of the impact of the news.  Also, while sources such as Weibo can be a valuable source for opinions on a variety of topics, they are not necessarily representative of the general public nor many of its major groups.

I wanted to get a sampling of thoughts from one of the many groups of people in China that typically aren't heard from in the foreign press to see how they compared to what would later be reported.  So on Monday in China, prior to reading the above mentioned reports, I asked over 10 people in Zhaotong, Yunnan -- a city in a rural region of Southwest China -- to share their thoughts about Bin Laden.  They were all younger Chinese (approx 18-25).  Some were working full time and some were university students.  President Obama's official statement was made around lunch time in China and I questioned people in the very late afternoon and early evening.  A cursory review of some Chinese news web sites prior to me speaking to people showed that the news of his death was both available and not buried.

Summarizing opinions of a group of people can sometimes be tricky, but this one was easy.

Without exception, none of the people I spoke to were aware of Bin Laden's death.

I wouldn't be surprised that if I had continued to question people eventually I would have found some who were aware of Bin Laden's death.  Regardless, the very consistent response I found is rather striking.  It does not appear that the news had quickly spread in Zhaotong.  I suspect I would have found the same in many other locations in China.

This certainly leaves a very different impression than that provided in the posts referenced above.  It's a good example of how sources such as Weibo can be valuable for understanding China but don't likely provide the whole story.


I've received questions about how the people reacted to the news once I told them.  I didn't include this before because I was primarily concerned about understanding the "natural" course of the reaction in China to Bin Laden's death.  I didn't consider me telling them the news to be part of that.  I only shared the news with people in order to confirm they hadn't heard it previously.

For what it's worth...  None of the people I spoke to reacted in any significant way upon hearing the news from me but there are several reasons not to read anything into it.  For one, it can be common in Chinese culture for people to hide their emotions in some situations -- that may apply here.  It would take some time to understand their true thoughts on the issue.  However, if someone didn't already know the news I didn't dig further due to the reasons I just mentioned.


Today (Tuesday) I had the opportunity to speak to another set of college students in Zhaotong.  The passing of another day seems to have allowed the news to travel as now there were students who were aware of Bin Laden's death -- the main reported source for the news was either television or through friends. 
There were a couple of students who mildly expressed happiness that a "bad man" was killed.   One was concerned this would spark future attacks (though not against China) and he also questioned whether Bin Laden was really killed.

However, many who were aware had no strong opinions about the news.  For example one girl said, "I've forgotten about him the past several years so it doesn't have much meaning to me."  As I've mentioned before, the response of "not caring" sometimes can be a mask and it would take a deeper interview to really be sure (I was simply asking people a brief series of questions informally).  However, if I had to make a gut-call based on speaking to people the past two days and my previous experience doing more in-depth interviews my overall impression is that the news is genuinely not of concern to many of the people I spoke to.   At most it is an interesting piece of world trivia to them.

Finally, despite the number of students who were now aware of the news, I still regularly came across those who had remained completely unaware.

And again, I want to emphasize the point that while online comments on sources such as Weibo and Twitter can be a great source of viewpoints, without context they can easily distort the impression one may have of the overall public reaction to a news event.  What I've shared might not be as "sexy" as the quotes found on Weibo, but it is just as much a piece of the difficult puzzle in understanding what over 1 billion people are thinking.


  1. Thanks for this Brian. I found similar indifference this morning from my Chinese co-workers. I'll be asking more people their thoughts on it later today and will post the results at

  2. Tom, as I mentioned above I'm not confident the indifference isn't a "mask" for people's real thoughts on the issue. Regardless, it's interesting you found a similar reaction (whatever it means) in another part of China. I'll be curious to hear what you continue to find.