An American Abroad

Terrorism’s Aftermath

In the five days since the horrible attack on people at the Kunming train station just 70 miles north of here, I’ve seen how the Chinese government and people react to terrorism. The current death toll is 33, with 130 injured, of whom 70 are in critical condition. It’s a little early for me to try to spin grand theories about what all this means. What follows is more of a notebook of observations.

  • I’ve seen detachments of police (or soldiers?) decked out in full body armor and carrying machine guns around Yuxi. Two days ago, they were near a construction site where a crowd of people had gathered to watch workmen put a temporary bridge over an excavation site. Last night I saw them standing outside Walmart. Today they were at a local public school. This is in addition to an increased unarmed police presence on the streets. And is it my imagination, or are those police sporting new uniforms?
  • I also saw a group of six Communist Party cadres dressed in civilian clothes and red armbands, carrying long thick wooden sticks, and walking in a somewhat ragged line around the public school. They were all men and all over fifty: not a particularly intimidating sight.
  • My passport was checked at the Mengzi train station on Sunday.
  • I interpret this as a big show designed to convince the people that the government and the party are going to keep them safe. Shows of police power and irregulars with big sticks makes me and my British colleagues feel less safe. The reaction of my Chinese colleagues and friends, though, is just the opposite. Here is a cultural impasse; I don’t understand the Chinese reaction and they don’t understand mine.
  • Chinese news stories are heaping lavish praise on the heroism of police on the scene at the time of the attacks. Stories in the western media, however, quote Chinese people as being less than pleased with the police response.
  • Rumors abound. I’ve heard that a bomb went off in Chengdu on the same day as the knife attack, that all the Muslim restauranteurs vanished from the streets of Kunming after the attack, that people wearing shirts with Turkic writing on them have been attacked, and that people with brown skins have been chased by angry mobs. I doubt most of these stories, but the point is that the state media’s refusal to go into detail about the attacks creates fertile ground for wild rumors.
  • Speaking of Uighurs, it’s been reported on American news sites that the Chinese government and news media have yet to use the word “Uighur” in any articles about the attack, referring only generally to “terrorists” and “separatists” and “the Xinjiang region.”
  • Atrocity photos of people injured or killed in the attack are circulating on Weibo and Weishin, pictures that are much more horrific than anything shown on TV.


  1. Matt Scheiber says:

    Jim, the contrast between your reaction and your Chinese friends’ reaction reminds me of our experience having a Spanish exchange student attending Bowsher. One morning she showed up to school to discover everyone had to go through a metal detector to enter the building. She was completely freaked out about how dangerous the school must be. Her Bowsher classmates felt safer because the school and the police were being proactive about preventing guns from entering the building.

  2. James Trumm says:

    Hi Matt, Similar reactions, but for different reasons. The anxiety that I and my colleagues felt was not “Yuxi must be a dangerous place,” but more like “those guys with guns are more dangerous to me than any terrorists might be.”

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