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An American tourist is murdered, and conspiracy theories abound

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An American tourist is murdered, and conspiracy theories abound
A Chinese police detective tries to block the taking of a photograph at the Drum Tower. / slate.com

By Tim Wu, slate.com | Aug 11, 2008

What would make you stab a 62-year-old tourist to death in the middle of the day and then leap off a 150-foot tower? That's a question you can't help puzzling over if you're in Beijing. What on earth was going on in the mind of Tang Yongming, the 47-year-old man who stabbed two Americans and their Chinese guide over the weekend? Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of the U.S. men's volleyball coach, was killed in the attack.

To be sure, the most probable explanation is that Tang was simply insane, or extremely frustrated for his own reasons, and somehow snapped, making the whole thing what officials call an "isolated incident." That's the official story—that Tang "was distraught over family problems," including two divorces and a son who was in trouble with the law. Yet the timing (the Olympics), the victims (foreigners), and the location (the ancient drum tower) have certainly left plenty of room for Beijing's residents and resident foreigners to speculate that something else was afoot. Here are the theories (from the partially grounded to the ridiculous) that I've been hearing.

The murderer wasn't Chinese.

This idea reflects on somewhat understandable disbelief that a Chinese person would want to ruin a time of national pride by killing a foreigner for no good reason. When I told the owners of a store in an alley near the drum tower about the murderer, they concluded, immediately, "He wasn't Chinese." They suggested that he was perhaps Malaysian, because Malaysians often look Chinese. When I insisted he was Chinese, their theory was that he probably wasn't Han Chinese (i.e., that he was an ethnic minority of some kind).

The Americans got involved in a Chinese fight.

At a foreigner's party, I heard it suggested that the murderer knew the Americans' tour guide and was perhaps even a jilted lover. He confronted her, the Americans heroically intervened to defend their guide, and in a fit of rage, out came the knife. Afterward, when Tang realized that he'd been possessed, so to speak, he leapt off the tower to his death.

This explanation does make the event something like a mixture of United Flight 93 and the climax of The Exorcist, but it doesn't really explain why Tang was carrying a knife or what about the Americans prompted him to use it.

An enemy of the party.

A Chinese friend, last name Yang, who did graduate studies in New York, suggested early on that the killer could be an enemy of the Communist regime—like someone from the Falun Gong religious movement. The idea here is that killing a foreigner is about the best way to weaken the party—by making it look bad during the Olympics. The killing, therefore, would be a rather extreme form of protest.

There's no evidence, however, of any such ties. What's interesting about this theory is the extent to which the Falun Gong is made out to be the Knights Templar or Freemasons of China—that is, an exaggerated bogeyman sometimes taken as the source of all evil, a group vicious enough even to endanger the good image of the Olympics. In response to my doubts, Yang replied that the Falun Gong is capable of doing extreme things, such as persuading beautiful young women to set themselves on fire.

An angry migrant (non min-gong).

I heard early speculation that the killer was non min-gong—one of the generally mistreated peasant laborers who do manual labor for very little money. These fellows have been treated somewhat poorly as the Olympics have arrived, along the lines of "Thanks for building the stadiums—now get lost."

The notion that Tang was an aggrieved laborer may represent some guilt the Chinese feel about the treatment of migrant workers. (A Chinese acquaintance also commented, rather unfairly, I thought, that a peasant laborer would be incapable of even understanding the idea that murdering a foreigner would be a way to send a message.) The idea was upended, though, when Tang turned out not to have been a peasant at all. Nonetheless, scaled down, the general idea that the killing was motivated by the frustrations of contemporary life has a ring of truth. (Another, quasi-related rumor that I heard: Tang was depressed because he lost all his money in the stock market.)

A Neo-Boxer movement.

In 1899, a secret cultlike group known as the Righteous Harmony Society, or the Boxers, began a campaign to purify China from all foreign influence, ultimately murdering more than 200 foreigners and thousands more Chinese Christians. For several months in 1900, the expats of Beijing and Tianjin were not to be found drinking in bars—as is today's tradition—but were holed up in fortresses holding out against the Boxers, until a wholesale foreign invasion saved their bacon.

The Boxers were somewhat like a Chinese Ku Klux Klan, and so it seemed to me that a residual anti-foreigner movement might still be around. However, no one I talked to seemed to consider this remotely plausible. My friend Yang, for one, pooh-poohed this idea, reminding me that "we don't hate Westerners anymore; we hate the Japanese."

A Cultural Revolution holdout.

While we're in the realm of implausible theories, Dai, a young member of the Communist Party whom I've befriended, speculates that—while it's highly unlikely—Tang could have been protesting the general abandonment of socialism over the last few decades or could even be an extremely rare holdout from the Cultural Revolution. While the latter seems unlikely, there are definitely those who think China has gone too far toward capitalism, said Dai, and the Olympics are something of a symbol of this.

A classic conspiracy.

Classic conspiracy theories don't take much skill to make up, because they aren't required to follow the usual rules of logic. Take, for example, this Internet idea that the murderer was a paid CIA agent, ordered to kill Americans to create trouble for China. Yes, that makes so much sense.



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