Beijing airport bomber highlights threat to social stability

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A female Chinese police officer, left, asks the crowds to step back as dense white smoke drifted across Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport after a man in a wheelchair ignited a home-made explosive device injuring himself but no others on July 20, 2013.

The man who detonated a bomb at Beijing Capital International Airport, the world's second busiest by passengers, highlights the growing threat to social stability in China from frustration at perceived injustice.

The wheelchair-bound man, identified as Ji Zhongxing, 34, exploded the home-made device outside the exit to an arrival hall on July 20 to draw attention to his grievances, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Ji, who sustained injuries to his arm, was the only one hurt in the blast, it said.

Economic growth that's averaged 10.5 percent a year over the past decade, limited local-government accountability and the lack of independent public institutions have led to increasing social conflict. The risk is that those with grievances will resort to more high-profile acts in bigger towns and cities to draw attention to their plight.

Protests such as Ji's "are the ultimate acts by those at the bottom of society who are unable to find justice," said Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies social unrest. "They are taking their issues from where they originated to big cities like Beijing, to sites where people gather, to places that will ensure greater public attention."

Operations weren't disrupted by the explosion, according to the airport's official microblog. The level of security checks were raised yesterday and all three terminals activated plans to prevent explosions, according to a Beijing Evening News report posted on the official People's Daily website yesterday that cited the airport police.

Beijing Airport handled 81.9 million passengers last year, the world's second busiest airport with Atlanta at No. 1, according to Airports Council International.

"˜Problematic' system

In June, a bus fire that killed 47 people in the city of Xiamen was started by a man who planned the blaze to vent personal grievances, Xinhua reported at the time.

"Social conflicts at grass roots levels have reached an unprecedented level as officials shield each other and the petitioning system is problematic," Hu Xingdou, a professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview. "This person may have chosen the international airport because he wants to gain revenge on society and get more attention."

Petitioning is the practice dating from imperial times by which people take their complaints either to local officials or directly to the capital.

Security spending

The number of so-called mass incidents -- strikes, riots, protests and other disturbances to social order -- doubled to 180,000 a year in 2010 from 2006 levels, Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping wrote in 2010. The figures are no longer published.

The Chinese government is spending more on its police forces, with expenditure on internal security set to rise 8.7 percent this year to 769.1 billion yuan ($125 billion), the government reported in March. Domestic security spending has exceeded outlays for national defense since 2010.

In 2008, a 28-year-old unemployed man stabbed five officers to death and wounded four at a police station in Shanghai in a revenge attack for being suspected of stealing bicycles, the city's police department said.

Fractured spine

Ji, from Heze city in eastern Shandong province, petitioned Dongguan authorities many times after a conflict with public security guards in June 2005 left him with a fractured spine and paralysis in his lower limbs, Xinhua reported yesterday, citing the findings of an investigation by Heze authorities. In 2010, Dongguan authorities paid him 100,000 yuan ($16,300), Xinhua said.

At Beijing airport, Ji set off the bomb "like fireworks" after he was stopped from handing out leaflets calling attention to his complaints, Xinhua said in a separate report. Photographs on the agency's website on July 20 showed airport and medical staff in a smoke-filled area of the arrival hall at Terminal 3 with police officers and other workers surrounding a person on the ground near an empty upturned wheelchair.

Ji's left hand was amputated as a result of the blast and he was taken by police after being treated in the hospital, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported, citing unidentified doctors. Xinhua said his family had no idea how he obtained the explosives and weren't sure of his whereabouts.

The explosion was followed by thousands of postings on microblogging sites denouncing social injustice. The incident occurred days after a watermelon vendor in Hunan province died after a clash with officials from the urban administration and law enforcement bureau.

"It's a great challenge for the government which not only needs to handle the individual cases, but also to provide an overall public security solution to the general public, who are growing more anxious," Wu said.

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