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Chinese netizens more interested in missing jet than Charlie Hebdo

As soon as the new edition of Charlie Hebdo hit the kiosks in France, it hit Weibo in China too. But the Chinese appear to be jaded with the latest developments related to the tragedy that shocked the world. In fact, they were never that “interested” in the first place.

The “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag smashed the five million mark on twitter on January 12th, a day after the Paris Unity Rally that had the whole world watching. Yet on Weibo, the hashtag never managed to pop up in the hot topic list nor the hot search list. According to data from Zhiweidata, a Chinese social media information and statistics research institute, there were a mere 3,149 mentions of the phrase in French and 2,546 in Chinese from January 8 to January 12.

There is one hashtag regarding the bloodshed at Charlie Hebdo that indeed generated substantial amount of chatter: #French Magazine Attacked#. There was no mention of the name Charlie Hebdo and no indication it was a terrorist attack. It is worth noticing that the hashtag was initiated by one of Sina’s own news accounts rather than a private account.

Curve Chart that shows changes in the number of Weibo posts with the hashtag #French Magazine Attacked# from Jan. 8th to 12th. Photo: Courtesy of Zhiweidata

From January 8th to 12th, the amount of reading under the hashtag accumulated to 3.81 billion with 75 thousand discussions, which is far less than the last trending topic that surpassed the billion mark for readership: #Airasia flight Missing#. This hashtag boasts 7.21 billion views and 313,000 discussions.

Nevertheless, the attack indeed generated a mild discussion among the Weibo users regarding the freedom of speech. Zhiweidata’s statistics from January 8th to 12th showed that there are 18,559 mentions of “freedom of speech” and 3,685 mentions of “freedom of the press” across the board on Weibo. It is not an impressive number but sizable enough given the latest downcast climate of the Chinese social media platform where the censors have been on heavy duty.

The discussion was fueled by a commentary by the Xinhua News Agency, the country’s official press agency which was published on the same day the Unity Rally took place in Paris. In the short article titled “Freedom of press should be limited”, Charlie Hebdo was described as “vulgar, cruel and oftentimes abusive”. Such characterization of the magazine’s content was implied as the reason for the attack, which led to the article’s conclusion that “unlimited, unprincipled satire, insult and freedom of speech are undesirable.”

Chatter volume of the key words on Weibo from Jan. 8 to Jan. 12. Photo: Courtesy of Zhiweidata

@大鹏看天下, a popular verified account rumored to be run by the chief editor of a major provincial news website was among the first that posted the Xinhua commentary on Weibo. His post soon went viral, attracting reposts from Weibo celebrities like @袁莉wsj, chief editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese website who wrote, “First figure out what News, Media, and Freedom means, then lecture the world.”

@袁裕来律师, a famous lawyer with over 17 million followers asked, “Why does (Xinhua) always have to go against the mainstream of the world?”

“Answer this first: why ‘freedom of the press’ is written into the Constitution but not ‘limited freedom of the press’?” tweeted @任志强, a Chinese real estate tycoon with a whopping 28 million Weibo followers.

“Freedom to them (the western world) is as sacred as God. It is not something a nation that has been on its knees for thousands of years can understand,” wrote a Weibo user.

“Has Xinhua been kicked in the head by an ass? ... If there was no French Revolution, there will be no People’s Republic of China as it is today... Freedom is limited, the limitation is right here in China,” wrote another angrily.

Surprisingly, the censors decided to ignore the shots taken at Xinhua and allowed people to comment freely, even letting go of sensitive ones as these:

“(Xinhua is) The ‘Old Friend’ of North Korea, Taliban and ISIS.”

“So, according to Xinhua, the two Chinese journalists who lost their lives in the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing in 1999 died because they deserved it?”

“As a news agency, Xinhua would not pay tribute to the freedom of press in a moment like this but talk about ‘respect for religion’! I wonder how a nation that has no religion can understand the meaning of ‘respect for religion’!”

“What about all those churches demolished in Zhejiang? Isn’t that an abuse of religion too?”

The Chinese seem more interested in the discussion of freedom of speech than in religion. Another statistic from Zhiweidata shows that in all the posts with the hashtag #French Magazine Attacked# from January 8th to 12th, the word religion was mentioned only 326 times, Muslim 242 times and Islam a mere 134 times.

Pen is weapon, drawn by Chinese Cartoonist @大尸凶的漫画. Photo:

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