Thursday was not a good day here in China. In fact, it was an awful day. It was a day filled with fear, shock, and sadness. It was also a day dominated by social media, for better or for worse. Because all of the horrible things that happened (and some that didn’t happen) would be broadcast almost immediately on the social media platform WeChat, in a series of words and images that made the phone app seem something like a cross between a news journal and a Faces of Death movie.
Everything started one night earlier. Wednesday, at 11:30 pm to be exact. This is when a massive explosion shook the city of Tianjin, located only an hour or two away from Beijing. If you haven’t seen video of the explosion, take a look below. It’s pretty intense.
“Your sister isn’t still in Tianjin, is she?” I asked my girlfriend early Thursday morning, shaking her out of sleep.
“Is your sister still in Tianjin?”
“Because some warehouse blew up last night. It says seventeen people are dead and a lot of other people are hurt.”
My girlfriend didn’t reply because she fell back to sleep. A few hours later she woke up and checked her WeChat. It was loaded with messages.
“Honey!” she said. “There was a terrible accident in Tianjin!”
I just nodded. Videos of the explosion were circulating all over WeChat. Most of them were the same or similar to the two videos above. There were others, though, ones closer to the accident scene, like this one from a CCTV camera.
“His body still hasn’t been found,” my girlfriend told me, translating her newsfeed into English.
By noon, we were on the subway and headed into downtown Beijing. Both of us wanted to do some shopping. I wanted to buy some shoes and she wanted to buy some makeup. She was on her phone practically the entire subway ride in, watching videos from Tianjin as they came pouring in. Most were surveys of the aftermath. The burnt buildings. The cars destroyed by the blast. And a few of the videos also showed bodies, scattered around the streets lying still as ragdolls.
This was the first of many times during the day that I questioned some of the ethics of what people were sharing. I mean, it’s one thing to share videos of the explosion or pictures of burnt buildings…but the dead bodies lying around seemed a bit much. As the day went on, things would get worse, though, and more graphic.
We went to a makeup store and Feng Deng (that’s my girlfriend) bought some stuff, and then we went to a little Cantonese restaurant. Before our food arrived, Feng Deng looked at her phone again.
“Something just happened,” she said. “The Wifi is cutting out. I’m not sure what it is, but it seems bad.”
“No, here, in Beijing,” she told me. A few minutes later her signal picked back up. She read the posts from WeChat moments and said, “Oh my God, they’re stabbing foreigners…”
Let’s just pause for a second to allow that sentence to sink in. “They’re stabbing foreigners.” It’s not really what you expect to hear while waiting for your lunch to arrive. Feng Deng then gave me the details of what was happening. She explained that there had been two incidents.
1. A group of men with knives had attacked people at the Beijing Railway Station.
2. An interracial couple had been attacked and stabbed in Sanlitun.
There were videos for both. The first one is impossible to find now. It was taken in a railway station, and you could just see people running and screaming while guys with large kitchen knives chased after them. The second video is still widely available. I’m posting it below, although I’ll warn you that it’s graphic. It shows a man with a long katana blade standing outside in Sanlitun (an area of Beijing popular with foreigners), and then the camera pans over to show a woman bleeding to death on the street.
I feel a bit guilty posting that. I will also say that there were many, many worse videos and pictures that would come out. The aftermath of the attack had been recorded and photographed by lots of people, and within minutes WeChat was dominated by those images.
“Why are they attacking foreigners?” I asked. I was stunned. I’ve lived in Beijing for three years, and although once in awhile there have been incidents of violence against foreigners, it’s mostly a very safe place to live.
Feng Deng explained that there was some kind of meeting going on in Beijing, although I wasn’t really sure of the details. It possibly had something to do with Japan. She said that these were protests against this meeting. She said that her friends were messaging her like mad, telling her to get out of the city.
“Do you still want to go shopping?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you think we’re going to get stabbed?”
It really is a weird moment if you ever find yourself having a conversation like this. In all honesty, I think we were both pretty freaked out. It seemed like there was a real risk, that my foreign-ness was putting us both in danger.
We decided to leave the city and go back to my apartment in the suburbs. Feng Deng went to the bathroom and I, feeling uncomfortable and nervous, took this blurry picture of a dog with a cone on his head.
Anyways, when we got back, a clearer picture of what had happened began to form. As it would turn out, these weren’t coordinated attacks on foreigners because of some meeting. Not at all. There had been no attack in the railway station. That story was a hoax. A rumor. No one seemed to know what the video was or where it had come from. The other attack, though, was very real. A mentally disturbed 25-year-old Chinese man had (from the reports we read) approached an interracial couple, asking if the man was American. He wasn’t. The Chinese guy then said he didn’t like Americans, and as the couple walked away from him, he stabbed the woman in her back. The foreign man (who is French) attempted to defend her and was also stabbed.
And that hit Feng Deng and I pretty hard. Really hard, actually. There’s an almost indescribable weariness that sets in when the victims of a terrible crime look a lot like you. We had even gone into the city to shop that day. It was eerie, and as I read more and looked at more pictures, I felt a level of heartbreak for that poor French expat that was incredibly deep. I felt like I was looking at myself. And like Feng Deng was the woman in those videos. I kept playing the scene out in my head with the two of us recast in it. Lying awake at 3:00 in the morning, I wished somehow that time could be reversed and that man’s wife could be brought back, and I felt devastated because I knew that was impossible.
So, yeah, Thursday was a bad day. The last I read, 44 people were killed and over 400 were hurt in the Tianjin explosion. That’s tragic. But there’s still an abstraction there, a distance between me and a group of people in another city that were the victims of real chance and circumstance. That were the vicitms of an accident.
Which wasn’t the case with the couple in Sanlitun. I don’t think Feng Deng and I will go to Sanlitun any time soon…not so much because we’re afraid, but more because it would place us even closer to a reality that we don’t really want to face.