SHANGHAI -- The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was “greatly shocked” by the reported execution of a Chinese hostage by the Islamic State group in the Middle East. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement that the government was still trying to verify reports about the reported death of Fan Jinghui, but said China was firmly opposed to violence against any innocent civilians.
Chinese citizens reacted angrily to the news online, with some calling for vengeance against the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. But others said China should not get dragged into conflicts in the volatile Middle East.
ISIS said in September that it had detained Fan, thought to be age 50, along with Norwegian Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, who also was reported to have been killed. Few details were known about Fan or what he was doing in the region; ISIS described him as a freelance consultant from Beijing, though other reports said he was a self-styled “wanderer” and former teacher, and may have previously run an advertising company.
Beijing previously said little publicly about Fan's situation, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong said China “had been trying to rescue the hostage with all-out efforts since the kidnapping happened,” though he gave no details.
Analysts said the case could place Chinese authorities in an awkward position. On the one hand, China has generally sought to avoid involvement in international conflicts, and has been critical of Western intervention in Syria and Iraq. At the same time China faces its own challenges from Islamic separatists, who it says are linked to ISIS, in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
China says a Xinjiang group, known as the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), was behind a series of violent attacks in the country over the past two years -- including an explosion in Tiananmen Square in 2013, which killed two passers-by and injured 39, and a knife attack at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March 2014 that left 31 dead.
After the Paris attacks last week, Chinese leaders stepped up their public criticisms of ETIM, calling on the international community to recognize it as posing a global threat. [The U.S. State Department previously listed the ETIM as a terror organization, but does not feature it on its latest main list of such groups.] Chinese officials also said this week that China was a potential target for future ISIS-related attacks, and vowed to step up security precautions.
Yet observers say that while China has pledged solidarity with the international community following the Paris attacks, Beijing was still likely to be wary of direct participation in any international action against ISIS, particularly with worries about attacks on its own soil already high.
“Beijing might provide financial and other indirect support to the anti-terrorism, anti-ISIS crusade, but is most unlikely to furnish military support,” Willy Lam, a specialist on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told International Business Times.
China's official Global Times newspaper said in an editorial this week that the world should be careful not to take drastic action in the Middle East and risk alienating and radicalizing more members of Muslim communities around the world. The paper described such actions as falling for a trap set by ISIS.
Pressure To Take Action
However the Chinese government, which is always concerned about demonstrating its legitimacy, particularly at a time of economic challenges, often faces public pressure to take tougher action in the international community. The dilemma was highlighted in debates on the Internet in China on Thursday. Among the 40,000 comments on local news portal Sina.com by 10 a.m. local time, one of the most praised said simply "Destroy ISIS." However, another -- possibly reflecting the official line -- said China’s people should "believe in the wisdom of the government," and "must not let our current fury lead the terrorists who are targeting the West turn the barrel of their gun towards us." Another added, "Some people want the government to light a fuse and set itself on fire so that we turn into France."
And in a possible sign of official anxiety about the public response, some reports Thursday morning said searches for Fan Jinghui’s name were being blocked on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
However, the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Willy Lam said that if the execution was confirmed, Beijing would likely use it as further justification for its current crackdown in Xinjiang, which the authorities say was aimed at terrorists and religious extremists. The campaign, which Chinese media said in May had led to the cracking of more than 180 gangs of criminals, has been criticized by some human rights groups, who say the government's tough approach risks alienating more people in the mainly Muslim region.