|China is not uniquely vulnerable, but it is vulnerable, like every country in the modern era.
A fire aboard the number 842 bus in Shanghai’s Yangpu district during morning rush hour May 5 killed three people and injured a dozen more. The bus, operated by the Dazhong Transportation (Group) Co., caught fire around 9:15 a.m. local time near Huangxing Road and Guoshun Road. Publicly, security officials say the fire was an accident caused by a mechanical problem. However, security officials have privately said that an individual came on board the bus carrying flammable materials. There is strong suspicion that the fire was the result of an intentional act, perhaps related to someone frustrated with losses on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
For several months, China has been stepping up security for transportation infrastructure in anticipation of the Beijing Olympics in August. But several recent incidents have reiterated the vulnerability of China’s transportation infrastructure, not only to potential terrorist or criminal attacks, but also to accidents stemming from negligence and corruption. While regulations and security procedures are being tightened, the potential for attacks on trains, buses and aircraft remains a risk for both business travelers and tourists.
Transportation Safety and Attacks
China has a long history of rail, airline and vehicle accidents. In the past, many incidents were due to poor maintenance, regulation and enforcement. Though transportation safety has improved in recent years (particularly in the airline industry), there are still numerous problems plaguing China’s transportation infrastructure. Just a quick review of recent incidents turns up several train accidents already this year. (One was the April 28 collision of two passenger trains traveling between the key Olympic cities of Beijing and Qingdao, which killed at least 72 and injured several hundred others.) Other incidents include the May 5 bus fire in Shanghai and the March 5 hijacking of a tourist bus in Xian. The March 18 attempted attack on China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901 from Urumchi to Beijing is also worth noting.
The April 28 rail accident — the second fatal accident on that line this year — was blamed on speeding and poor management and led to the dismissal of eight railway officials, including the director and Communist Party chair of the Jinan Railway Bureau. Much of China’s rail infrastructure, particularly in the north and northeast, is outdated or poorly maintained. The section where the April 28 accident took place was under repair and being upgraded at the time.
Like the rail lines, many of China’s road networks are aging, and even on the newly built highways, traffic laws are rarely followed and accidents are common. Airline safety is perhaps the area China has made the most improvement in during recent years, after a string of accidents in the late 1990s and early 2000s prompted a complete review and overhaul of maintenance and safety procedures.
While outdated or relatively unregulated transportation is a given in many parts of the world, China has also seen its share of attacks against transportation targets. There is suspicion that the May 5 bus incident in Shanghai was an intentional attack, and the March 5 hijacking of a busload of Australian tourists was certainly no accident. In fact, buses have been frequent targets in China, with attackers ranging from militants and separatists to organized criminal gangs to generally upset or disgruntled individuals. A quick sampling of incidents reveals a multitude of reasons behind attacks on buses in China.
* In the 1990s, Uighur militants in Xinjiang carried out a series of bombings against buses (though some are thought to have been related to a protection racket rather than to separatism).
* On March 7, 1997, there was a bus bombing in Beijing that was initially blamed on Uighur militants, though officials in Xinjiang said it was a criminal act unrelated to the Uighur militancy.
* In February 1998, a jilted lover detonated a bomb on a bus in Wuhan, Jiangxi province.
* On Jan. 17, 1999, a bomb exploded on a bus in Changsha, Hunan province, injuring 37. The incident was initially blamed on a farmer and came during months of simmering unrest between local officials and farmers.
* In the same month, there was an explosion at a bus stop in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.
* In June 1998, a bomb exploded on a bus outside a rail station in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
* In August 2005, a farmer suffering from incurable cancer detonated a bomb on a bus in Fuzhou, Fujian province.
One unique feature of China that makes such attacks relatively frequent there compared to in the United States is the contrast between the general lack of gun availability and the easy access to explosives, particularly industrial dynamite. Whereas in another country one might see a targeted or random shooting as a way of settlin