By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 11, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 10 -- Violence and bloodshed marring the first two days of the Beijing Olympics provided a dramatic reminder that there is no such thing as perfect security in a country as vast as China, with so many people nursing grievances against the authoritarian government.
In violence that attracted the widest attention, an American was stabbed to death and his wife was seriously wounded Saturday while they visited a Beijing monument; their Chinese guide was slightly injured. Far from the capital, at least 11 people were killed and four were wounded Sunday during confrontations between security forces and suicide bombers in a remote corner of the tense Xinjiang region of far western China.
The casualty list in both incidents was relatively short, but the impact was extensive. Not only did the violence occur against the backdrop of the Olympic Games, with their tradition of fellowship and harmony, and at a time when the world's eyes are trained on China. But the Chinese Communist Party had made security a dominant part of its role as Olympic host, with a deployment of soldiers, police and civilian block wardens so smothering that some foreigners griped that it risked taking the fun out of the Games.
President Hu Jintao and other senior officials repeatedly had emphasized to Chinese security forces that maintaining order during the Olympics was the most important facet of the two-week period -- and the one most likely to affect China's image. Their concentration on preventing violence or protest reflected determination to use the Games as a platform to display China's progress over the past three decades and its openness to foreigners after years of isolation.
Accordingly, the Chinese government reacted swiftly. Hu expressed condolences for the stabbing to President Bush at a bilateral meeting Sunday afternoon and said Chinese authorities were taking it seriously. Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, also expressed his dismay and said security would be strengthened at Beijing's tourist attractions.
Security forces also seemed to be having trouble enforcing their ban on protests. Five foreign activists -- two Americans, two Canadians and a Tibetan emigrant from Germany -- were detained after holding up Tibetan flags and unfurling a banner reading "Tibetans are dying for freedom," according to Students for a Free Tibet. A number of other foreign pro-Tibetan protesters have been deported for staging similar protests, including one the day of the Opening Ceremonies.
Security deployments appeared to have thickened at Olympic venues and around Beijing, adding to the 100,000 soldiers and police and the 1.7 million volunteer wardens already mobilized.
Four plainclothes men, with party buttons on their shirts, and two uniformed wardens stood guard at the main entrance to the Friendship Store on Chang'an Avenue, for instance, and three People's Armed Police troopers, instead of the usual two, monitored comings and goings at the nearby Qi Jia Juan diplomatic compound. Visitors to the Place, an upscale shopping mall, were greeted by five layers of security guards: People's Armed Police in the street, local police strolling around outside shops, mall security guards at entrances, private security personnel walking the hallways, and employees wearing "safety worker" badges inside each business.
"I think in China it has to be this way," said Birgitt Buhrdel, 46, a visitor from Cologne, Germany, who said she was initially troubled by the sight of so many police but now is glad to have them. "We feel more assured that as a Western tourist you are not in danger."
Visitors have been subjected to pat-downs and bag inspections at Beijing train and subway stations and prominent monuments for the past few weeks. But a tour company manager said visitors to the Drum Tower, where the stabbing occurred, were not being checked Saturday. The 13th-century monument remained closed Sunday.
The attacker, who committed suicide immediately after the stabbing, was identified as Tang Yongming, 47. The Beijing Municipal Government said he came to the capital Aug. 1 from Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, adding that the motive for his travel remained unclear. But the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said Sunday that he had come to file a petition with the central government seeking redress for an unknown grievance.
Such petitions have long been popular in China, dating from imperial days. In the lead-up to the Olympics, however, the Communist Party repeated orders to local governments to resolve disputes at home to prevent people from coming to Beijing to seek attention for their causes. In response, several local security officials took to detaining disgruntled citizens if they tried to travel to Beijing.
There were no accounts from witnesses about whether Tang said anything before the stabbings or his suicidal leap from the tower's second floor. Although the general level of such violence is low in China, explosions of pent-up fury are far from unknown among the country's 1.3 billion people, many of whom feel authoritarian one-party rule leaves them without recourse in disagreements with officials.
A bus was blown up in Shanghai recently, for instance, and a man upset with an earlier arrest there burst into a police station and stabbed six policemen to death. Two people were killed last month in two bus bombs in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in southwest China. And 10 Australian tourists were briefly taken hostage in March by a man with a bomb strapped to his body in Xian, home of the famed terra cotta warriors.
A little-known group advocating independence for Xinjiang's predominantly Muslim Uighur population said it had carried out the Kunming bombings. But Chinese authorities expressed doubts about that claim. However, an attack last Monday that killed 16 border guards and wounded 16 others in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar was officially blamed on Uighur separatists trained by foreign-based groups linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
Authorities told the official New China News Agency that Sunday's attacks were carried out by 15 people in Kucha, halfway between Kashgar and the Xinjiang regional capital of Urumqi, but did not assign blame. No organization asserted responsibility for the operation, but it bore the hallmarks of previous Uighur separatist attacks on government installations.
The two main attacks began with a three-wheeled motor scooter that drove into a Public Security Bureau compound with explosive devices that went off about 2:30 a.m., killing a policeman and injuring four other people. Police shot and killed one of the bombers and another killed himself, they said. That was followed by a clash six hours later between police and five would-be bombers at a market, the agency reported, in which police shot two men dead and three blew themselves up.
In a statement that differed slightly from the official agency's account, police said that their gunfire killed eight in all and that two bombers blew themselves up, while one police officer was killed.
The entire county, with about 400,000 inhabitants, was cordoned off later Sunday and police ordered all government offices and businesses closed while security forces swept through the area.
Uighur separatists have been waging a long, sometimes violent campaign to shake off rule by China's Han majority. Several groups, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party, have vowed to carry out attacks during the Games to publicize the Uighur cause.
Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and look more like Central Asians, have long chafed under Beijing's rule and resent the steady influx of Han Chinese immigrants who make up half the region's population and hold the key levers of government and economic power.
Correspondent Ariana Eunjung Cha, staff writer Michael Abramowitz and researcher Crissie Ding contributed to this report.