In China, Fine Line Between Response and Overreaction

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

KUNMING, China, July 22 -- Some residents of the city of Kunming awoke Monday morning to find they had received a cryptic text message on their cellphones: "The general mobilization of ants," began the warning. "Hope citizens receiving this message will not take bus lines 54, 64 and 84 tomorrow morning."

The message, presumably written Sunday night, didn't mean much to those who received it, until two bombs exploded on a pair of buses during the Monday morning commute, killing two people and injuring 14 others.

The goading note was a stark reminder that connecting all the dots before an act of violence and providing an ironclad protection against it is nearly impossible, experts said, despite all the steps China has taken in recent months, including anti-terrorism drills, calls for citizen vigilance against suspicious activity and high-profile arrests.

Du Min, Kunming's deputy mayor and director of the local public security bureau, said Tuesday that police did not receive the text message before the blasts, nor had anyone telephoned them about it. Police are now investigating the message -- which was reported by the Web site of the Yunnan Daily, a state-controlled newspaper -- along with several other leads culled from interviews with surviving bus passengers.

No arrests have been made, and although police have drawn sketches of two men potentially involved, Du declined at a news conference to name them as suspects or release the drawings to the public. Instead, he sought to broaden the net of information, offering the equivalent of $14,660 for clues that lead to solving the case. He appealed especially to passengers who took Route 54 buses between 6 and 8:30 a.m. on Monday, taxi drivers near the sites, and shopkeepers and passersby.

Du said there was not enough evidence to say the bombings were the result of terrorism or to link them to the upcoming Olympic Games, which will be hosted in Beijing starting Aug. 8. China has warned that the threat of terrorism is its biggest concern as it prepares for the Games, and in the name of security, it has taken several steps to bring attention to possible dangers.

Experts said that even if the bombings are found to be an act of individual rage or revenge, the public response shows how difficult it can be to strike a balance between prevention and overreaction.

For example, Du described his thinking after learning of the first bombing at 7:10 a.m., about six minutes after the blast. He immediately sent officers to the scene with orders to first rescue the injured, then control the site, set up roadblocks around the area and contact the public health department to make sure the best hospitals and doctors were available to treat the wounded. He also made sure someone alerted the bus company. His action plan, he told reporters, "proved totally correct."

Except he didn't anticipate the second blast, which came about an hour later, leading some to ask why he did not order all the city buses to be stopped and searched after the first bombing.

Li Wei, manager of the safety service department of the Kunming Bus Group, said there are 2,900 public buses operating on 188 routes in Kunming. To order a shutdown, he would need to get the permission of top government leaders. "We have to go through all the procedures," Li said in an interview. "First I will report to the leaders who are responsible for transportation and wait for their orders."

Li said he alerted his direct boss as well as the deputy mayor in charge of transportation after he got a call at 7:23 a.m. about the first explosion. After the second explosion at 8:05 a.m., Li asked for permission to stop running buses along that route, and his request was eventually approved. The Route 54 buses were returned to operation around 8 p.m., after safety checks had been conducted.

Zhang Jiadong, a security expert and assistant professor at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that if Li and Du had ordered all the buses to stop operation after the first bombing, whoever was behind the blasts might well have found another target.

Public transportation systems are particularly difficult to protect, Zhang said. "The public expectation for the government response is above the government's capabilities," he said.

Still, Chinese state-controlled media outlined the many steps Beijing has taken to increase protection at its airports and railway and bus stations in recent days to prepare for the Olympics.

Douglas Paal, director of the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the Olympic Games always pose a formidable threat of terrorism. In China's case, Paal said in an e-mail, "I think the counter-terror measures being taken are also formidable, and perhaps insuperable except for individual acts of self-sacrifice that are hard to prevent."

Paal said that given China's vigorous security, "foreign terror groups should be viewed as less a worry than domestic sources, because the latter, though fewer and less well-organized, have the advantage of blending in."

Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company