No guns, just knives: Chilling details of ‘China’s 9/11’
Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY12:50 a.m. EDT March 30, 2014
(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
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A month ago, in a nation of mostly unarmed police and wholly unarmed citizens, a small gang of killers with knives brought mass murder to the Chinese city of Kunming in the country’s first major exposure to terrorism outside its restive northwest, home to the suspected perpetrators.
In the weeks since that blood-soaked first day of March, police nationwide have stepped up gun training. More armed patrols visit train stations and public squares. Experts call for quicker use of guns in emergencies.
As Beijing vows tighter security and anti-terror legislation, some analysts worry more crackdowns will just fuel the cycle of violence.
The details of that day, told here, are what is feeding China’s swift evolution.
With big dreams in his heart, and a modest lunch of rice and cabbage in his bag, Zhang Jianyao walked 30 minutes to work at Kunming Railway Station. He saved money on food, and transport, to eke out a $230 monthly wage as a security guard.
His regular shift lay ahead, 24 hours straight, with the next day off to chase his real calling as an inventor. He had registered two patents without attracting commercial interest, yet Zhang, 46, an unschooled migrant from a desperately poor county, believed in his latest creation: a street-cleaning device even his long-suffering family thought could prove his breakthrough.
Li Jinmei couldn’t tell who was more excited — her mother or her daughter — as they boarded the long-distance bus to Kunming, from Dali in the west. Her mother, 55, had never left her home county, or seen a city, but she finally agreed to visit the neighboring province where Li, 32, had lived with husband Pan Huabing for 14 years.
Like countless millions, Pan, 39, had swapped China’s fields for city work, as a welder. Their daughter, Pan Yujie, 6, last made the trip to her grandmother’s two years ago. Four other relatives also boarded for their return journey at the tail end of the great annual migration home that is Chinese New Year.
To keep her husband alive, Shi Kexiang said goodbye to him for another year. His illnesses require medicine the family’s drought-prone farming plot could never pay for, so Shi and 21 other relatives crowded aboard a bus to Kunming from Chuxiong for their trek back to work.
With her brother and son, Shi, 57, grabbed piecemeal jobs at construction sites in Tianjin, northeast China, a long train ride away from Kunming, the regional rail hub.
Arriving at Kunming station, Shi and her family found benches in a covered area on the main square, a temporary facility set up for the holiday crush. They had time to spare before their 10-to-midnight train. Li Jinmei’s party approached two hours later.
"The outside world is so big, there are so many pretty things," gushed her mother, glimpsing her first skyscraper.
Shi Kexiang’s brother gave up waiting for her son, who had left to visit a relative in the hospital. Shi Xuefa, 52, took their heavy luggage through a security check, to pass to family members already in the upstairs waiting hall. He would return to help his sister, saddled with three of the bags.
Selling instant noodles and other snacks since 9 a.m., shopkeeper Liu Guilin looked forward to his wife taking over at midnight. Liu, 28, took a break to play cards with friends on a bench near his store. Quietly, a gang of killers moved into place, for a city utterly unprepared.
Wielding short swords or knives, they sliced and stabbed anyone in range, including children. One struck at Pan Huabing’s young daughter. Pan threw himself in the way. Cut badly on the chest, he clutched the unharmed child on the ground.
Li Jinmei’s husband, Pan Huabing, was badly hurt in the March 1 terror attack. To save their 6-year-old daughter from an attacker’s blow, Pan dived in the way.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
Pan’s cousin Zuo Ruxing, a fellow welder, grabbed the girl and his own son, also 6, and ran for their lives.
The screams sparked panic, but the killers calmly continued their slaughter. They numbered at least five, including two women dressed in black and veils. Two came 50 feet from Liu’s store, including a man about 6 feet tall who resembled the Uighur people from northwest China’s Xinjiang region.
"He held a man, then cut his throat, in the middle of the waiting area. He was so calm, he made no expression at all," said Liu. "They must have been brainwashed or taken drugs, they were so composed. They weren’t running, but taking slow steps."
Liu Guilin, right, stands with the parasol pole he used to defend his store and a dozen women who took shelter there.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
"Mass fight at the railway station!" squawked a police radio. Car park owner Pu Yuanwei, 48, was chatting with officers at the nearby Beijing Road police station when the alert blared. The officers rushed to collect walkie-talkies and colleagues. Drawn to the drama, Pu beat them there in his own car.
When he arrived, he saw two women, daggers in both hands, cutting down their prey. As people scattered, Shi Kexiang was slashed in the neck. Her brother found her, alive, lying beside three corpses. "There were eight of them, in black. I could only see their eyes," she gasped, as he pinched her neck to staunch the blood.
At his shop, Liu Guilin upended his stool as a weapon, then grabbed the metal pole of a sun parasol to ward off attackers. A dozen women rushed behind him for safety. Liu phoned the emergency line to report the crisis and quickly cursed the operator. "So many people are dead, and you still ask, ‘What’s the matter?’ "
The police were coming armed only with batons, not guns, as is common in China. "Come chop me," shouted railway police officer Zhang Liyuan to draw the assailants to a parking area with fewer people, reported the state-run Xinhua News Agency. They ignored him. Parking lot owner Pu Yuanwei saw him lose a finger as he helped a security guard who was being attacked. "If they had been armed, they could have saved half the dead and wounded," said Pu.
People defended themselves with anything at hand, from fire extinguishers to bamboo bongs for smoking tobacco. "There was no time to be scared," said duty manager Wang Nannan, at Dicos fast-food restaurant, where staff took up floor mops to guard the door and the frightened crowd that had sought refuge.
Motorbike taxi drivers and other unlicensed workers who are often targeted by authorities rushed the attackers several times, said Pu.
More police arrived, some armed and firing warning shots, but again were overwhelmed by the assailants, who moved up Beijing Road, away from the station. The terror they wrought mocked the slogans on roadside billboards: "China Dream" and "harmonious home" of multiple ethnic groups. Cautious police, likely awaiting orders to shoot, exasperated some onlookers who pleaded "Let us fire your guns!" said Pu.
One SWAT team member packed more lethal firepower, an automatic rifle. On Eternal Peace Road, the attackers charged him. "I shot them as fast as I could," said Zhang Jun, Xinhua reported. "After I shot all five, the first one, also the nearest to me, stood up again and threw a knife at me. Luckily, I tilted my head." She was captured alive.
Pu and other volunteers shouted themselves hoarse, stopping public buses to serve as ambulances, and then lifted the wounded on board. At the restaurant where Li Jinmei and her mother had fled, she took a call saying her husband, Pan Huabing, was dead.
Pan’s cousin Zuo soon phoned back with a correction — Pan was headed to hospital, injured but alive.
Guard Zhang’s wife, Wang Shuzhen, typically called him at 10 p.m. each evening, at the end of her dish-washing shift at a cheap restaurant. Tonight, his phone rang without answer.
Bloody busloads of the dying and wounded kept arriving at Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital. The horrific attack killed 29 people and injured 143. Called in from his day off, neurosurgeon Ma Gang went straight into surgery, working till noon the next day. "Their methods were ruthless and their technique was quite expert, they must have had some training," said Ma, 51. "Their knives went for fatal areas, they were not cutting just to wound," he said.
Shi Kexiang and Pan Huabing began multiple surgeries. Zhang Jianyao’s wife and daughter had rushed to the station but were directed to the wrong hospital, with the news "it’s serious". At 4 a.m., with no clue to Zhang’s whereabouts or condition, doctors told them to go home.
Ma Gang, a neurosurgeon at Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, worked all night treating badly wounded patients after the March 1 terror attack in Kunming. Ma says the wounds were expert, and meant to kill.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
At 11 a.m. Sunday morning, Zhang’s family learned he was dead. Zhang had used a baton to stop an attacker’s blow at colleague Ding Xuefu, saving his life. He bought time for others to escape before he was stabbed several times.
Four weeks later
Beijing says evidence showed the attack was a terrorist plot by "Xinjiang separatist forces," seeking independence for the homeland of the 10 million Uighur, a mostly Muslim people. Overseas, Uighur activists blame repressive Chinese rule for stirring unrest.
Chinese police quickly detained three other suspects of the alleged eight-member terror gang, whom the government said targeted Kunming after they couldn’t escape China to wage holy war abroad. On Saturday, the three and the woman captured at the scene were charged with terrorism and murder. The death penalty is all but certain.
Welder Pan Huabing is recovering and should leave the hospital next month, said wife Li, who worries about their daughter’s mental scars. Shi Kexiang, the elderly laborer, remains in a coma. If she survives, doctors expect she will be left in a vegetative state, said son Shi Youwu, 28. "I hate them, these people must have no parents, no relatives, they have no humanity," he said.
Shi Youwu, 28, and his uncle Shi Xuefa, 52, stand outside the ICU unit in a Kunming hospital, where Shi Youwu’s mother, Shi Kexiang, 57, remains in critical condition after being slashed in the neck, shoulder and ear in the March 1 terror attack.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
Such anger is widespread in China. Eyewitnesses wonder what could have possessed the killers — "don’t we have good policies in Xinjiang?" asked Liu, the shopkeeper —while some plead for calm. "The terrorists want to create hatred between ethnic groups, but we can’t let them," said Pu Yuanwei, who warns against viewing all Uighurs with prejudice.
One week after death, when Chinese believe the soul of the deceased returns home, security guard Zhang Jianyao was cremated. In mid-March, his family was pressured into quickly accepting state compensation of $48,000, said his daughter Zhang Dali.
"I talked to other relatives, we all think it’s too low. But the officials said they can only offer that amount," said Zhang, 23. The payment relieves her father’s $32,000 debts, from an inventing passion they never understood, but leaves little to replace the family’s main bread-winner.
Much went awry in Zhang Jianyao’s life. He quit school at age 10 to help his parents grow maize. His inventions never turned into money. His poetry, another long-time hobby, never got published. Even the government got him wrong: a mistake on his identity card gave Zhang the first name Jianguang, meaning "build glory."
Mourning a martyr, the slain security guard Zhang Jianyao, 46, are his wife, center, daughter and son.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
On March 1, he made his mark. Zhang’s ashes remain unburied, as the family wait for the state to designate him a martyr. The award brings honor, some cash and a martyrs’ cemetery berth, but Zhang Dali says the bureaucracy is complex, and they may give up in a year. She already knows her dad died a hero.
"In that situation, most people would flee, but he went to help others," said Zhang. "That was what he was like."
Contributing: Sunny Yang in Beijing