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MILTON (Massachusetts): In Chinese, just as in English, quotation marks can indicate attribution, doubt or dismissiveness.

And just like in the United States, terrorism is a sensitive issue in China, where disaffected citizens have at times used violence for political ends.

In such an environment, employing quotation marks around a highly politicised word like terrorism can be combustible.

On the evening of March 1, a group of knife-wielding assailants dressed in black burst into a crowded railway station in Kunming, the capital of China’s southwest Yunnan province, and slashed travellers, passersby and police, killing 29 and injuring 143, including children and the elderly. Police shot dead four assailants at the scene, and say they have captured all the surviving suspects.

Eleven hours after the attack, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that based on evidence found at the crime scene, separatists from the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang are behind the terrorist attack. (So far, no groups or individuals have claimed responsibility, and Beijing has not released any names of alleged perpetrators.)

Following the Xinhua report, many major western media outlets covering the event, including The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, BBC and CBC of Canada used quotation marks around the word “terrorism,” some in the article’s headline, some in the body, and some in both.

Chinese internet users and domestic media were quick to notice this punctuation choice, and a storm of anger against perceived Western bias quickly brewed on Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging platform.

While some Weibo users interpreted the quotation marks as attribution to the Chinese government’s official statements, which most Western media outlets usually take with a grain of salt, many detected sympathy with separatist aspirations in Xinjiang, or what one called an “obvious agenda”.

Another wrote that some of the articles about the Kunming attacks ended “with the Han Chinese’s invasion of Xinjiang’s religion and culture,” which “turned the carnage of civilians into a political game.” (Xinjiang became part of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region.) Tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao tweeted to his 5.8 million followers that “uniformed thugs indiscriminately killing innocent civilians undoubtedly constitutes terrorism.”

He wrote that he had always admired the West, but “cannot stand” the way Western media first reported the Kunming attack.

Chinese state media did not sit on the sidelines. The People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, also took to Weibo to demand an explanation from Western media for its “blindness and deafness” and “intentional downplaying of the violence and sympathy towards the assailants.” “China sympathised with the Sept 11 terrorist attack,” it wrote in a popular tweet.

“But some American media harboured double standards regarding the Kunming terrorist attack. Why?”

A post by the official account of the US Embassy in Beijing fueled the outrage. It did not, as many Chinese had hoped, characterise the attack as terrorism, but instead called it a “senseless act of violence”.

Almost all of the over 50,000 comments left on the post accused the US Embassy of a double standard when it comes to violence in China.

“If the Kunming attack were a ‘horrific, senseless act of violence,’ the most up-voted comment reads, “then the 9-11 attack in New York City would be a ‘regrettable traffic accident.’ “ (The United Nations Security Council released a statement late Sunday condemning “in the strongest terms the terrorist attack”.)

Some of the fallout from the embassy’s statement stems is due to an unfortunate translation.

“Senseless violence”, a common diplomatic phrase the Obama administration has also used to describe the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the US ambassador to Libya, read as “meaningless violence” in Chinese. Many Chinese web users, likely already attuned to signs of disrespect, took that to mean the US sympathised with the assailants.

The violence did not serve its supposed purpose, the message seemed to say, but the assailants’ goals could be achieved by some other means.

These developments are troubling for US - China relations, but not entirely surprising. In a digital age, it’s relatively easy for wired citizens of one country to peer into the media environment of another.

But old-fashioned cultural, political and linguistic barriers remain. Even — perhaps especially — at times of tragedy, the combination often spurs more pique than understanding.

—By arrangement with Tea Leaf Nation- The Washington Post