Turn Off the Light, Stupid: What China Thinks of Bin Laden

“Americans are happy today.”
-My barber

We don’t like Bin Laden, but he’s better than America.”
-Some Guy Interviewed on Chinese News

“Laden was the greatest national hero in Arab history using his own power to fight the most powerful country in the world, America”
-Zhang Xin
Director of the China Central Television’s National Security and Military Channel

In my quest for an answer to the question, “what does China think of Osama Bin Laden, today I was reminded how potentially dangerous curiosity can be (you heard about the cat right?).  I think a quest for truth is never not good but a quest for an answer will come up short every time.  The problem with an answer is once you’ve got it you stop looking.  There is ALWAYS something more.  Always another angle.  Always a different opinion.  Always something that you missed before.  If we could have it our way (mmmm . . . I miss Burger King) we would have our answers cut and dried and served on a platter (mine with a Whopper please).  What does China think?  They’re glad he’s dead.  They said so.  Next.  
But there is so much more.

Here are some themes that I caught today on my quest but if you want the real truth you’ll need to come talk to a billion and a half more people yourself.  You can sleep on my couch.  

A Big Indifference
This is a monumental moment for America but while the implications are blatantly global, Bin Laden has never really been China’s biggest problem.  It’s fair really.  Every nation feels their own pain much deeper than the any others.  China felt the pain of 9-11 much the way that many Americans felt the pain of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which had a death toll of more than 20 times that of 9-11).  It’s was horrible.  It was sad.  We were eager to help.  But it was on the other side of the globe.  Glad it wasn’t us.  Is that China speaking about 9-11 or America about the earthquake?  Yes it is.

The funniest moment of my day was when my assistant explained the Chinese translation of Bin Laden’s name.  Ben Ladeng.  I said, “‘Ben’ as in stupid?”  She laughed and said, “no a different ‘Ben’ but it sounds the same.”  Then she laughed slightly harder and said, “Ladeng can mean to turn out the light, so we sometimes say, ‘Ben Ladeng’ like we are saying “turn out the light . . . ” I finished for her, “Stupid?”  She giggled again . . . “yes, it’s like a joke.”  I laughed hard and said, “you have no idea.”  Even in her joking, though, there wasn’t that sense of harshness or slammingness or you’re mama’s so fatness that American humor is so famous for.  For her . . . “it just sounds funny, so we say it.”  

I think that helped me grasp the indifference.  Something that tapped my emotions, my pride, my anger, my cynicism my sense of justice and my sense of humor all at once, just sounded kind of funny to her.  We have different filters.

A Realistic Concern
Several times today I was asked if I was afraid of what might happen next.  “Bin Laden has many followers.  Are you worried?”  Obviously they are not the only ones to pick up on the impending threat but they have some history on both sides of that coin.   

Xia Minghan was a hero of the early Communist Revolution in China.  He was arrested by the Nationalist Party and penned a now famous poem that was quoted to me today with a really rough translation:  “It doesn’t matter if you cut my head off as long as there is true doctrine.  Kill me and there will be others.” (it sounds way more poetic in Chinese).  Xia was killed two days after his arrest but his legacy was a part of the fuel that helped the Communists drive the Nationalist Party to Taiwan and take control of China even after a long and nearly terminal struggle.  Point being, Osama is gone but there are plenty of others.  Point taken. 

An Attention to the Bottom Line
I read a great article today that said, I’ve often heard Chinese friends muse that China’s unimpeded rise over the past decade owed, in a small, strange way, to the fact that the U.S. was so preoccupied with Islamic terrorism that it didn’t have time to notice.”  Wow.

Al-Qaeda and the likes may not be a front burner issue for China but anything that scrapes the global economy won’t stay on the back of the stove for long.  You can be sure that there are plenty of wealthy Chinese business people watching to see which way the arrows point on the stock market today.
An Ironic Sense of Justice
Justice may be the most written word in the past 48 hours but it is very much a perspective word.  It’s a ‘good guys finally gets the best of the bad guys’ word and it relies very heavily on the understanding that I am the good guy.  However, you might not have noticed, but not everyone in the world labels America as the good guy.  China’s perspective on America has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.  We have successfully climbed from Imperialist Devils to Best Imperialist Customer Devils but we’ve got a long way to go to reach Good Guys.  From what I can see most of China leaned toward sympathy when they saw the towers fall in New York, but for some . . . that was justice.  From what I can see most of China also still sees the U.S. as a rich and powerful nation which likes to start wars and police the world.
A Complicated Big Picture
To sum it all up, you just can’t sum it all up.  China is vast and diverse and while they may make a public statement that is rarely challenged openly that doesn’t paint the whole picture.  There is no lack of personal opinion or position.  You can speak to a taxi driver, an office worker, a police officer and a beggar and you will get the same story from four beautifully different perspectives.  It’s like the more people you talk to the more the lights come on.  Or you can take the first answer you get and draw your conclusion.  That’s kind of like turning off the light . . . stupid.


  1. Excellent Post! EXCELLENT POST!

  2. Thanks for that!

  3. Thanks Peter . . . and thank YOU anonymous.

  4. Ditto Peter. It would have taken me a month to write a post like that..and then it would have been old news already. Well said.

  5. I had just arrived at a major University in N.E. China to teach English two weeks before the horrendous 911 attacks. I learned of the attacks while in one of the student cafeterias having lunch. All the state-owned TV channels were broadcasting a loop of the planes hitting the towers. At one table where some Freshmen boys were eating lunch watching as the first plane slammed into the Trade Tower, the students excitedly leapt to their feet and shouted a victory whoop reminiscent of a computer gamer destroying a major cyber enemy. Oh course, at the time, I didn’t even know what I was seeing. It was in Chinese after all, and being brand new to the campus, as yet, I had no phone, no TV, no internet access–no way to find out what horrible calamity had befallen my country. As days went by, I began learning about the attacks as bits of news began filtering down to us inexperienced newbies. Early on, discussion with my students in my oral English classes was uncomfortable and limited to questions such as whether or not I had lost any family or friends in the attack. Visible signs of relief were present on their faces and in their body language when I said that I didn’t. Some of my older students explained to me later that the reaction I observed in the freshmen boys that fateful day in the cafeteria was due to the common resentment felt towards America as a result of the Chinese jet fighter vs. American spy plane collision over Hainan Island just a few short months before. As well, nearly all Chinese still have an acute remembrance of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade being bombed by an America war plane (by accident) just two years prior. To Americans those incidents were unfortunate accidents, but to many Chinese they were intentional and an example of “American Imperialism” and arrogance. I suspect that to many more Chinese than expressed it openly, 911 was well-deserved payback for a long line of American evils. Talk about an abrupt lesson in cross-cultural (mis)understanding.

  6. I thought for sure your assistant was going to tell the joke!

    Apparently on 9/11 President Bush called President Hu (or some other Chinese leader) to see if he could help Bush figure out who did it. Hu was asleep with his wife and when the phone rang she turned on the light while he answered it. But when he realized it was a video call, and they did not look presentable, he told her, “Turn out the lights!” in Chinese, and Bush said, “OK, thanks for the answer,” and hung up.


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