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Shanghai Bus Fire Highlights Chinese Transportation Vulnerability

Written by Rodger Baker

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May 7, 2008
By Rodger Baker stratfortir.jpg

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 settling a score or venting anger at society, explosive-driven attacks against buildings, homes and buses are more likely in China.

Similar but less frequent attacks occur against the rail system. One took place January 20, 1999, when a railway line was bombed about four miles south of Xingtai in Hebei province. The bomb was likely timed to cause the train to derail, but prematurely detonated. Another incident occurred in July 2005, when a passenger train collided with a freight train after passing a signal that had failed after its wiring was removed. (It is unclear if this was intentional sabotage or illegal recycling of copper.)

In October 1990, Xiamen Airlines Flight 8301 crashed into a China Southern Airlines plane on the tarmac in Guangzhou as a hijacker struggled with the pilot of the Xiamen Airlines flight. And on March 17, 2008, Turdi Guzalinur, a suspected Uighur militant from Xinjiang, smuggled two containers of gasoline aboard China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901 from Urumchi to Beijing but failed in her attempt to destroy the plane in flight. There are many more examples of sabotage and attacks against the transportation infrastructure in China, and even more that go unreported internationally.

Changing Perception of China Among Islamist Militants
While some potential attackers, like jilted farmers, are hard to identify and pre-empt, China has both stepped up its general security measures for transportation and increased its monitoring and intelligence gathering against suspected Uighur militants. Although there is some suspicion that Beijing has exaggerated the perceived threat from Uighur militants, the fragmentation of the Uighur militant movement has left many members more closely connected to Central Asian, Afghan and Pakistani militants as part of the broader international jihadist movement. And there are signs that these movements are taking more of an interest in China in recent years and months.

In March 2003, 16 Chinese nationals were killed when their bus was attacked and burned in Kyrgyzstan by suspected Uighur or Central Asian Islamist militants. In May 2004, three Chinese workers were killed near Gwadar, and in June the same year another 11 Chinese workers were killed in Afghanistan. In October 2004, two Chinese were kidnapped in South Waziristan, Pakistan, and around this time there was a reported uptick in small-scale attacks in Xinjiang. In November 2005, there were a series of warnings, some later revoked, about potential Islamist militant attacks against Chinese and U.S. interests in China to coincide with President George W. Bush’s visit to China.

Around November 2006, a video calling for a jihad in “East Turkistan” (the name for Xinjiang) began to circulate, and in January 2007, China raided a revived militant training camp in Xinjiang near the border with Central Asia. In July 2007, three Chinese engineers were killed near Peshawar, Pakistan, and a suicide car bomb struck a convoy of Chinese workers near Karachi. China conducted another series of raids in Xinjiang between January and April 2008, allegedly crushing three different Uighur Islamist militant cells. Other reports from Beijing and Shanghai in March suggested Chinese security forces were monitoring the activities of Muslims outside China who were seeking to infiltrate schools and businesses in the Eastern Chinese cities. More recently, there are concerns that other potential militants are entering from Kazakhstan.

Overall it appears that, as China has increased its engagement and military cooperation with Central Asian states, and its involvement globally, Beijing is losing some of the low profile it once held in the sights of international Islamist militants. Add to that an emerging murmur urging attacks against the Olympics, China’s increased crackdowns in Xinjiang and calls for security sweeps by its Central Asian neighbors and Pakistan, and the pressure is mounting for militants to strike against China.
Transportation is where both the Uighur militants and al Qaeda have a commonality of historical interest.

Despite increased security protocols and patrols, it is nearly impossible for China to both maintain impenetrable security for its transportation infrastructure and facilitate the movement of goods and people. As we have noted before, completely securing public transportation is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, job. Threats to rail and air traffic remain a constant issue globally, and China is now being faced with these challenges in a more significant manner than in the past. As the March 17 airline incident, the March 5 bus hijacking and potentially the May 5 bus fire in Shanghai show, attacks against transportation are possible even in a heightened security environment. And as China tightens its grip over Xinjiang, another flare-up in attacks is likely to result.

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