IN THE WAKE OF LAST FRIDAY’S SHOOTINGS at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a wave of celebration hit Chinese social media.
On Weibo—China’s Twitter equivalent, with 446 million monthly active users, 120 million more than Twitter—mainstream coverage of the attacks was barraged with comments that expressed anti-Muslim rhetoric and support for the shooter. The top comment under a video clip posted by People’s Daily likens Muslims to “cancer cells” and asks the Chinese government to avoid making the same mistakes as New Zealand. People’s Daily is China’s largest news outlet and the official state paper, and its comments section is heavily censored. Yet at the time of writing this comment is in the highest position of visibility and has been liked by more than 400 people.
Such comments aren’t representative of the Chinese population. Many Weibo users posted emphatic rebuttals, and some wrote articles decrying anti-Muslim sentiment. But again and again, the “most-liked” comments under mainstream media posts on Weibo are filled with hate speech. “Islamophobic speech on Chinese social media only comes from a small group of people. But there has been a drastic rise since 2016,” Kecheng Fang, a veteran Chinese journalist and media researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me, noting the influence of the US presidential election.
One of China’s largest digital newspapers, ThePaper.cn, published fourteen news posts about the massacre to its 16 million followers. Under those posts, seven “top” comments made statements that were explicitly anti-Muslim or in support of the shooter. Together they have been liked 1,590 times. Only two comments condemning the massacre made it to the top of the pile. The same pattern can be observed on the feeds of The Beijing News, Global Times, and other mainstream Chinese news outlets. (The public discussions taking place under the posts of political commentators and individuals are even more unhinged.)
WeChat, the world’s third-largest social media app at 1 billion users, is no exception. An article titled “The names on the gunman’s magazines reflect the deep anxiety of European white men” that described the attacks as “heroic revenge” quickly surpassed 100,000 views (WeChat’s view count limit). The article included a poll: 10,881 readers who participated, or 76 percent, responded that they were very or somewhat sympathetic to the shooter. Another post, entitled “New Zealand massacre is not a terrorist attack,” quotes at length from the gunman’s manifesto and was shared in screenshots across WeChat groups. On Zhihu, China’s Quora-like Q&A platform, inaccurate translations of parts of the manifesto also spread widely.researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me, noting the influence of the US presidential election.