China and the end of Osama

Osama bin Laden finally met his end in Pakistan in May 2011. While the world and Pakistan have not changed all that much since then, the killing of bin Laden did shake the Chinese up in more ways than one. From ordinary netizen to government-run media, there was disbelief (“Impossible! I don’t believe it”), sarcasm (“Sigh! Bin Laden has died once again!!”) and worries of a geopolitical sort (“After Bin Laden, will China become US foe?”).

Unbelievably, there was no mention of Osama bin Laden’s death on the front page of the online English editions People’s Daily or of the China Daily well into late evening China time, on 2 May by which time the rest of the world had already passed from shock to relief to questions about what would come next. Even when the news finally hit the front page, it was relegated to a corner item of the websites and print editions of the big state-run news media. The Chinese edition of the People’s Daily in fact sought to mark the occasion with a strange pictorial of Osama and his family and like the China Daily‘s Chinese web page showed photos of cheering Americans celebrating the death of bin Laden. The Global Times, was the only one to headline bin Laden’s death even if very briefly and it too strangely stated that bin Laden was hiding along the Af-Pak border instead of conceding that he had been found and killed nearer Islamabad than any border. Similarly, Xinhua’s first report of the killing of bin Laden stated that he had been killed in an operation by Pakistani forces, before a correction was run later in the day.

For every regular old newspaper in China that puts up government copy verbatim, however, there are commercial variants that have greater freedom to be colourful and dramatic in their presentation of the facts. Thus, many put up dramatic front-page illustrations of US troops surrounding a building, helicopters firing missiles, as well as covers with images of blood splatter and bullet holes alongside bin Laden’s photograph, plainly going for sensationalism rather than an accurate reporting of the facts.

When more details of the American operation finally, began to be publicized, many initial reports, including the People’s Daily video section (called PTV) emphasized technical details of the American action including news of DNA tests being carried out.  The focus on the technical details in many Chinese reports suggests a grudging admiration for the US’ military operational and intelligence capabilities –domains where the Chinese know they are well and truly behind the Americans even if they have been struggling to catch up since the first US-led Gulf War in 1991.

Perhaps, in an attempt to draw attention away from questions of whether China possessed similar capabilities if the need ever arose, Chinese commentary soon turned polemic. One commentary reminded the US that the end of bin Laden was only “a symbolic success in the fight against terrorism… far from a real triumph.” Also reflecting widespread anti-American feelings in China, many of the initial reactions on the Chinese internet  were expressions of shock and regret at the death of bin Laden. Indeed, as pointed out earlier, the biggest Chinese fear is actually of the US using bin Laden’s death to quicken its withdrawal from Afghanistan and as an excuse to refocus on China. One commentary even helpfully put out a timeline of “Sino-US relations before and after Bin Laden” highlighting only how relations had become better post-9/11.

Traditional Chinese friendship for Pakistan also found its voice in Chinese commentary. The Global Times argued that “criticism of Pakistan intelligence [was] unfair” and that “Pakistan’s sacrifices in war on terror deserve[d] respect.” China also implicitly criticized both the US’ approach to dealing with terrorism and its violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty in the Abbottabad operation by telling Washington that it had to “abandon double standards on fighting terrorism to fully consider the interests of other countries.”

That said, China was not above giving some cautionary advice to Pakistan as well, mentioning in the same article, that “the backward tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain as the major base areas for Al Qaeda” and in another piece, gently reminding Islamabad that China’s “frontier provinces are occasionally disturbed by extremists from within Pakistan.”

Thus, Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani’s visit to China to celebrate 60 years of “all-weather friendship” was a useful photo-op for his beleaguered country but the Chinese while shaking hands also kept Islamabad at an arm’s length. As the confusion over Gwadar port indicated, China will prefer to keep its commitments to Pakistan limited to profitable ones while letting Washington do the actual heavy-lifting. Meanwhile, China was proven right about the war on terror not having yet ended as its citizens in Pakistan came under attack once again at the PNS Mehran.

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “China and the end of Osama,” Dawn (Pakistan), 14 June 2011.

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