Friday, December 26, 2008

An Unfortunate Incident

On Christmas Eve I was saddened by the news that my favorite cafĂ© in Kunming, Salvador’s Coffee House, fell victim to a bomb attack. Luckily, none of the patrons or staff were seriously injured, though the bomber died of his wounds later that day.
In my nearly nine years in Kunming I have always viewed the city as a safe place, much safer than most American cities, and safer than many Chinese cities as well. The idea of a bomb attack that apparently targeted foreigners still seems ludicrous.
Salvador’s has been an important part of the community, and was heavily frequented by locals and foreigners alike. The American owners are friendly and easygoing, and have a very enlightened approach to business’s responsibility to the community.
The specter of foreign-targeted violence is very unsettling, as are a few other things that I’ve recently noticed.
First, and probably the most baffling, is that no major international news outlet (with the exception of South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong) has picked up the story. Why would that be? It was a bomb, someone died, the city was recently victim to two bus bombings that remain unsolved, and foreigners were targeted in a region that is heavily dependent on international tourism. THIS IS A STORY!
I have a few theories as to why they haven’t picked up on the story yet. The first is that the bomb failed to produce a large body count. Sensationalism sells. The second is that the incident fails to fit into the “story-arc paradigm” that so dominates the international press these days. When the bus bombings took place, you had tons of reporters writing things like “China faces growing security risks during the approach to the Olympics”. Reporters were also quick to point their fingers at a farmer protest in southern Yunnan, because newsworthy stories can only be understood in light of other events that made the news. With the Olympics over and things calming down in Tibet, this incident is rather hard to explain. The third theory is less odious, but doesn’t let the international media off the hook. The bomb hit Salvador’s on Christmas Eve, when a lot of newsdesks are stripped down to a skeleton crew. By the time they notice that news actually happened during their time off, the story will be too old to report. Regardless, every China desk should be ashamed for failing to find and report this story.
Another unsettling development is that even before the bombing, Kunming was feeling less and less like a safe city. Two buses were bombed at morning rush hour earlier this year. A man was recently shot by police snipers after a five hour hostage standoff in a Kunming Carrefour. I myself was present at the Box, a bar near Salvador’s, when some drunken men stormed the place with crowbars. I also recently witnessed a massive gang fight in Kunming’s disco district which local security guards and police were helpless to stop. What the hell is going on here?
The Box incident, though paling in comparison to the recent terrorist attacks (there, I said it), is an interesting case. When police were summoned to the scene, they actually caught the guys coming back to finish the job. Nevertheless, the young men were questioned and released. Then an officer came in and proceeded to grill us about why these people (whom we’d never seen before) would be so mad at us. After releasing our assailants, he was basically trying to lay the blame on us. Perhaps he was angry that we had disrupted his drinking session. One of us noticed that he was not wearing any identification, which is a violation of police procedure. We asked for his badge number, and he threatened to arrest us for not carrying passports (surely a much worse offense than attempted assault with a crowbar). He eventually conceded only that his surname was Yang, and that he is an officer at the local Wenhua Xiang police station.
I am very familiar with that police station, as it is right next door to Kunming’s largest purveyor of pirate DVD’s. I wonder if perhaps this kind of attitude towards policing might be contributing to the growing atmosphere of lawlessness in the city.
I’m rambling. Back to the unsettling things. The most recent unsettling development is taking place on, an excellent Kunming expat blog that has been following the Salvador’s attack and doing a good job. At the beginning, the comments section was an outpouring of sympathy for the people at Salvador’s. This seems to be quickly degenerating into a flame war, as shameless ultranationalists are pointing the finger at foreigners. One comment told all foreigners to go home before “bringing more danger to our country”. Another told us all to “fuck off and die”. I really wish these people would realize that they’re not doing their country any favors. If they really cared, perhaps they would direct some of that anger at the people who put so many innocent lives at risk.

That is my rant. Now to the important stuff:

I love Salvador’s and all of the people there. I am overjoyed that they are all okay, and I can’t wait to go back down there for a cup of excellent coffee as soon as the place reopens. My heart goes out to their family members who right now can only worry from the other side of the world. Let’s all stay positive.

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