China is booming, as everyone likes to say. But I’m not referring to the fast-growing economy, even if the annual pace of growth here has moderated to a still much envied 7.6 per cent over recent months. I’m referring to the bombs.
For a government that likes to boast of the country’s social “stability”, the Chinese police have to tidy up an awful lot of crime scenes involving crude homemade explosive devices.
The most dramatic recent incident occurred late last month, inside Beijing airport’s newest and grandest terminal. A young man in a wheelchair parked himself near the arrivals area at Terminal 3 and set off a bomb, sending a plume of black smoke through the cavernous halls. Only the bomber, Ji Zhongxing, 34, was injured in the incident.
Cue public outrage at a man who had recklessly endangered the lives of others, right? Wrong. It turns out Mr Ji had a compelling history that aroused widespread sympathy, not condemnation. And like so many backstories in China, it encompassed many geographies.
Mr Ji hailed from the eastern industrial province of Shandong. While working in southern Guangdong, he was paralysed from the waist down after an alleged beating at the hands of local chengguan, an auxiliary police force hated by many for its occasionally brutal methods. Fobbed off with inadequate compensation, he resorted to extreme measures in the capital to bring attention to his case.
And hadn’t Mr Ji warned people to back away before setting off his device, people asked in China’s blogosphere? They also demanded to know where the police had taken the poor man, who was badly injured in the incident. It is hard to imagine a similar outpouring of sympathy for a still reckless act in, say, the US.
Flying into Terminal 3 less than a week later, I did not see evidence of Mr Ji’s “desperate performance art”, as one labour rights group called it. But another violent incident was brewing on the expressway linking the airport to the city centre, and it threatened to delay my journey. A man surnamed Bai, armed with two knives, had hijacked a taxi and demanded to be taken to the airport.
Getting wind of the incident as it happened, some Chinese internet users urged him on. Others laughed in derision. Didn’t Mr Bai know he would just get snarled in Beijing’s infamous traffic? “He should have hijacked a bicycle,” was a common observation. Sure enough, he was apprehended without difficulty at a police roadblock on the expressway and my commute into the city was unaffected. Subsequent media reports quoted Mr Bai’s family as saying that he was mentally unstable.
A reminder that “stable” China isn’t immune from random violent acts is the sight of passengers queueing at entrances to every subway station in Beijing – to have their bags screened. It was therefore with some alarm that, on a recent commute home, I found myself standing next to an abandoned bag. It had been placed at the front of the train, next to the driver’s compartment.
It posed a dilemma – could it be an explosive device planted by another disgruntled citizen and should I draw attention to it? I imagined headlines about the panicky foreigner who had disrupted the subway system because some granny forgot her vegetables.
I was considering the cowardly route of getting off the train when my moral predicament was suddenly resolved. A young man rushed over to claim the bag. As I heaved an audible sigh of relief, another man standing next to me laughed.
“Were you scared?” Yun Ming asked. I confessed I was. “I was too,” he said.
“Is your bag safe?” I asked Mr Yun, noticing his suitcase. He assured me it was. He was on the way to the airport, for a long-planned holiday to Egypt. Mr Yun, whose business takes him between his home in northeastern China, Beijing and the UK, was worried about the turmoil there but decided to go anyway.
The encounter reminded me of a recent meeting I had with a mid-ranking Chinese official, for whom booming Egypt was a welcome topic of conversation. He expressed satisfaction when I mentioned I had spent much time over the past few years editing copy from Financial Times correspondents in Cairo and other Arab spring hotspots.
“That’s good,” he told me shortly after last month’s coup. “So you will understand that China’s democracy is very advanced.”