A common question I get asked by friends and family back home is, “How safe do you feel in China?”
Compared to the U.S., I feel very safe. I can walk down just about any alley in Beijing at 4 a.m. without the fear of being mugged. China prohibits gun ownership by ordinary citizens, and even small weapons are hard to find.
For example, a few months ago, I went to a French sporting goods outlet to buy hiking gear for a trip to southwestern China’s Yunnan province. I asked a sales clerk whether they carried pocket knives, and she gave me a strange look.
“Not even small ones?” I asked, holding up my pinky to illustrate how small.
Although weapons are hard to get, violent crimes do happen. In 2008, an American tourist visiting Beijing for the Olympic Games was stabbed to death at the Drum Tower. Another American man was fatally wounded in a stabbing last year on Dashilan, a commercial street in Beijing.
Then on Monday, five people were killed and dozens injured after a car crashed near Tiananmen Square. Chinese state media said the crash was a “terrorist attack” carried out by separatists from Xinjiang, where Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic group — sometimes clash with Han Chinese over what they consider to be oppressive government policies.
That a group could carry out an attack in arguably the most heavily policed public space in Beijing makes China feel less safe. I’ll be curious to see if the government beefs up security in one of its vulnerable public areas: the city’s subway system. Millions of people use Beijing’s extensive subway network every day — many more than pass through the capital’s heavily guarded airport — but security remains lax.
Riders must pass their bags through a security screener before boarding a subway carriage. More than once, I’ve seen the guard in charge of inspecting items asleep at his desk or texting while bags pass through.
In light of what happened in Tiananmen, this kind of negligence could give someone the impression that some Beijing security employees don’t put a priority on safety. And for a government that values stability, appearances are everything.
My feelings about Beijing remain unchanged. A single terrorist attack isn’t going to make me feel any less safe. I can’t say the same for my family, who might have a few extra questions the next time we talk.