There’s nothing new about the use of hypodermic needles to threaten and rob people. It happens all over the world. What is unusual is for an entire city like Urumqi to be gripped by fear, with hundreds of people claiming to have been stabbed, and rumors swirling about separatists deliberately spreading AIDS.
But this is not the first time panic over needle attacks has filled a city in China. In January 2002, shopping areas in Tianjin were deserted and people on the streets were in a state of constant vigilance. Everyone knew some version, or versions, of the rumor: that people with AIDS from Henan were taking revenge, either for being infected or for being abandoned by society. Then the rumors spread to Beijing. None of them were true.
Four people were arrested and convicted in Tianjin; three in Beijing. In Tianjin, two of the attackers had used syringes during a robbery. The others were completely unconnected and none of them had AIDS. In one of the Beijing cases, the man didn’t even use a syringe - he was just pricking people with an awl. It was never clear how this really started. All of the people convicted had heard the rumors and copied them.
The panic in Tianjin and Beijing in 2002 was remarkably similar to the situation now in Urumqi. While some people really had been threatened or pricked by needles, it seemed that many of those who flocked to the hospitals had not pricked by anyone. Their “attacks” were just a product of mass hysteria.
The difference between these cities is that Tianjin and Beijing were not already on a knife edge when the rumors began. Unlike Urumqi, no one was beaten to death and there were no protests demanding the resignation of city leaders.
Below, I’ve translated a Southern Weekly report from late January, 2002. It’s worth reading now because we are unlikely to see open reporting like this in Urumqi and because it highlights just how unreliable such rumors are. In one of the claims the paper investigated, people were able to give detailed descriptions about the pursuit and capture of a non-existent attacker. The “victim” did exist, but she had simply misinterpreted a previously unnoticed scratch on her hand.
Southern Weekly, January 24, 2002
Rumors that people are using AIDS-carrying syringes to prick city residents have created anxiety throughout Tianjin. Police in Tianjin have caught four suspects. Tianjin TV broadcast an expert’s explanation: the HIV virus dies a minute and a half after leaving the human body due to congealing of the blood and unless the HIV carrier draws the blood at the scene and immediately injects a large quantity into another person, it is extremely difficult to transmit the HIV virus with a needle.
Why were the rumors so ubiquitous? Because there was no authoritative mainstream voice. It is worth considering how to make use of emergency mechanisms when public security crises occur.
For the last two to three weeks, the streets of Tianjin have been unusually deserted and residents’ eyes are on the alert as they have never been before.
The pedestrian shopping streets of Binjiang Road and Heping Road have given the city’s busiest commercial district the name “Tianjin’s Wangfujing.” But the sprinkling of pedestrians make it seem that the name does not match reality. One person from Shandong who came to Tianjin on a business trip says, “If you just looked at the people walking in the streets, you wouldn’t believe this was a big city. It’s pretty much like the small county town back at home.”
The source of the widespread malaise in this huge city of nine million people is a rumor: that a group of people with AIDS from Henan have come to Tianjian and are taking revenge on society by randomly stabbing people with syringes loaded with HIV-infected blood in public places like shopping centers, supermarkets and on the street.
According to a local reporter, people say the rumor began on Christmas Eve when it’s said that a man was pricked in Binjiang Shopping Center. After New Year’s Day [Jan. 1], stories about needle-pricking spread further and further and the number of people pricked became greater and greater until the whole city was filled with anxiety.
Faced with the difficulty in judging whether the rumor was true or false, people chose to take an attitude of “better safe than sorry” and did their best to keep outside activities to a minimum.
The truth behind the rumors
“Needle-pricking” has now become the most frequently used phrase in Tianjin. Almost everyone reporters ran into was discussing the issue, but the story was being spread entirely by word of mouth. Not one of the dozens of people reporters spoke to had actually seen it happen, nor could anyone give the name of anyone who had been pricked. Many times local people told reporters that someone had been pricked at a particular time and place, but when reporters followed these leads they usually led nowhere.
After much searching, reporters learned about the experience of a woman called Wu who was supposed to have been pricked in Tianjin’s Hongqiao district. One afternoon, on January 15, Ms. Wu went to buy food at the vegetable market opposite her home. This involved a ten-minute walk. At the market, she was about to buy some pickled vegetables, but when she reached out to take them she suddenly noticed a “needle hole” on her hand. Next to the “needle hole” was a fine scratch. Ms. Wu rushed to a nearby clinic. She says the doctor squeezed a little blood out of her injury, smeared it with iodine and then called the police. The police took her to the Municipal High Court, where a forensic doctor examined her. The result of the examination was that there was nothing wrong with her. They said the wound on her hand was probably caused by a sharp object like a wire or bamboo and she needn’t worry. Despite this, Ms. Wu couldn’t completely put her mind at rest. She says she hadn’t knocked into anything and it’s not very likely that anything else could have scratched her. She also says she’s 50 years old and is not afraid of AIDS. Her main concern is for the young children.
So why would these unexpected rumors and “needle-pricking” incidents appear in Tianjin. Reporters heard three versions. One is that an outsider had a blood transfusion in a Tianjin hospital and contracted HIV. In revenge, he called some companions and carried out these “needle-pricking” incidents. Another version is that most people with HIV in Henan were infected when they sold blood and some of the vehicles used at that time to collect the blood had Tianjin license plates. So now these people with AIDS had come to Tianjin to take revenge. Yet another version is that some people with AIDS from Henan had gone to Beijing to report their situation to the government and to demand that society should not abandon them. They wanted to get more attention to their situation, but instead they had been rebuffed. So, to make society take them more seriously they had gone to Tianjin and carried out these attacks.
However, there has been no verification of any of these versions. Public Security, Health and other relevant departments all say, “It’s still not time to make announcements about this.” Under these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to investigate the truth behind the rumors.
From what can currently be ascertained, there have indeed been people pricked by needles in Tianjin. This point was confirmed by an announcement by Public Security officials to city residents. The announcement said, “Recently, an extremely small number of criminals with ulterior motives have attempted to create social chaos and disrupt stability, using needles to prick people and spreading rumors saying the people who have been pricked will be infected with AIDS.”
How many people have been pricked? There are many different accounts but according to a reliable source the number is at least several dozen.
Do the perpetrators have AIDS? And have the people who have been pricked been infected with HIV? Based on the limited facts available, reporters still cannot confirm this.
Tianjin takes action
This issue has attracted great attention from all sides. Sources say Tianjin Public Security have opened a criminal file and dispatched hundreds of police throughout the city, making every effort to solve the case.
A comrade at the Health Ministry’s Department of Disease Control says they are aware of the situation and are taking it very seriously. They have made the state-level AIDS research institution provide suggestions to the Tianjin authorities and are maintaining direct contact with the Tianjin Public Health Bureau.
The Tianjin Municipality Education Department has issued a notice to primary and secondary schools telling them to tighten security in and around their grounds. At the same time, they have called on pupil’s parents to pay attention to their children’s safety. Some schools have sent teachers to the school gates to escort the children as they arrive or leave after class, while nearby police stations have sent one or two officers to protect the sites.
On January 17, the Tianjin Municipality Public Security Bureau made a preliminary announcement on the situation. This was the first official statement to be made on this issue. According to the announcement, public security organs have caught several perpetrators and the details of the case are as follows:
At 2pm on January 1, a criminal suspect, Sun XX, was caught holding a syringe and waiting for an opportunity to commit an attack outside a certain commercial building. A hypodermic needle was found in the bag he was carrying. A criminal suspect, An XX, had been sent for reeducation through labor for molesting a young girl. At 6 o’clock on January 7 this year, he pricked a middle school girl in Hedong district. Police caught him soon after the incident was reported. Two criminal suspects, Han X and Tao XX, barged into the home of a young woman called Liu XX holding syringes containing red ink which they used to threaten and rob her. After the incident was reported, police caught the two of them along with the instruments and money.
The Ministry of Public Security says the implements used in these cases cannot transmit the HIV virus. “The talk of suspects pricking people with needles to spread AIDS is simply scaremongering…. We hope the general public will not listen to rumors, put their minds at rest and calmly go about the normal work and lives.”
That evening, Tianjin TV broadcast the news that police had caught four suspects and invited two authoritative experts who explained that the HIV virus dies a minute after leaving the body due to congealing of the blood. Unless the HIV carrier draws the blood at the scene and immediately injects a large quantity into another person, it is extremely difficult to transmit the HIV virus with a hypodermic needle.
Reporters discovered that this openness produced good results. When asked what they thought about the “needle-pricking” incidents, many people said they didn’t believe the rumors because of the television broadcast.
Why the rumors became so pervasive
However, the “needle-pricking” incidents have probably had an even deeper influence on the city’s residents. A reporter was walking down the street with a friend from Tianjin and discovered this friend had formed a habit of looking all around him. As soon as anyone came close, he would immediately stare at the person vigilantly.
Reporters noticed that many people in Tianjin had developed this conditioned response. Everyone consciously maintained a distance from other people on the street. Violating this distance would often be met with heightened vigilance or even an antagonistic expression. A Ph.D. graduate at Nankai University says, “This is because the rumors have formed a response of tension and anxiety in people’s minds. It has made them feel as if they are surrounded by chaos and danger.”
In fact, none of these people have personally seen these incidents take place. What they imagine and understand about the incidents is based entirely on the rumors. In other words, it is the rumors and not the facts themselves that have created this social anxiety.
A Nankai University Ph.D. graduate who has an interest in rumors says, “The uncertain and random nature of rumors often produces exaggeration, distortion and fabrication.”
What actually happened to Ms. Wu, mentioned above, and the rumors that followed were a perfect example of this distortion. In reality, Ms. Wu did not see anyone prick her with needle. But according to the rumors, with the help of many people, the perpetrator was caught in the vegetable market. Some people even gave detailed descriptions of the whole process.
In the days that reporters were in Tianjin, they constantly heard that a student had been pricked in a particular school, or that the same thing had happened at a particular market. But when they rushed there to investigate, they often found that no such thing had taken place. One rumor said that someone had used a syringe to inject HIV-infected blood into food at a supermarket and because of this the supermarket had been closed. Reporters counted at least five different supermarkets that were supposedly closed down, including several of the biggest names in Tianjin. When these claims were investigated, all of them turned out to be groundless.
One local says, “On January 15, I heard that the Jiale supermarket in Beichen had been closed. I rang them up and said I wanted to buy some things, were they open or not? The supermarket staff said they were open, come over. Because of that I knew that the rumor was false.”
A manager at the Dacai Supermarket said there were rumors everywhere that supermarkets were being closed and wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they were started by competitors.
One thing is certain: a considerable proportion of the rumors about needle-pricking incidents are false. One local expert says, “They have exaggerated both the frequency and the seriousness of these incidents, giving people a false impression and exacerbating social anxiety.” This expert says a key factor in making rumors so prevalent is a lack of an authoritative mainstream voice.
The reports and explanations on television were considered to be somewhat late. This expert says, “I can understand that they wanted to maintain stability and avoid affecting even more people. The motive was good. But looking at the actual results, this silence did not stop information spreading. And, because of the lack of transparency, it gave even more space for all kinds of rumors. It also made people come up with the worst suspicions. For example, the suspect An XX was caught on January 7. If the authorities had quickly reported the progress in this case to the public and, at the same time, explained through authoritative channels about the transmission of HIV, wouldn’t the result have been better?”
One expert says, “Actually, Tianjin Municipality did a lot of work to reassure the public. For example, on a number of occasions, the Public Security department gave out leaflets explaining the details of the case and that it is very difficult to spread HIV using needles. But leaflets are somewhat lacking in authority. If this method had been combined with media reports and government announcements, the result would have been better.”
This expert says that after 9/11, support for Bush rose to a rarely seen 80%. The public did not lose trust in him because of the disaster. This was helped by him taking a series of forceful actions, as well as giving confidence to the public through open channels of communication pledging to defend the country to the death. Emergencies can happen anywhere and they don’t mean that a leadership has to lose its voice. The crucial thing is how to respond. Looking back at some of the emergencies that have taken place in recent years, how should people in charge respond and what sort of system should be put in place? This, unfortunately, is an issue that needs to be reconsidered.
This case is now in the final stage of investigation. The deputy managing director of the Tianjin Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Zhu Xiaoke, says that in one respect this incident could have a positive side, making people in Tianjin pay more attention to public health. It has also exposed people’s mistaken ideas about AIDS and various problems that need to be resolved.
Not just humanitarianism
Reporters found that many people know very little about the AIDS situation in China, expressing a dangerous tendency. A lot of people consider AIDS to be lifestyle problem. Commenting on the “needle-pricking” incidents, one salesperson on Heping Road said, “Those people caught an incurable disease because of their own promiscuity and now they’ve come here to hurt people. They’ve got to be ruthlessly punished.” Although some people know that a sizeable proportion of people with AIDS were infected through no fault of their own by selling blood or from blood transfusions, there is still an attitude of indifference. One resident in Hedong district said people with AIDS should be sent to an isolated island, separated from the rest of the world. One middle-aged person called Li even said, “They should be exterminated.”
None of the city residents the reporters met had seriously considered that if people with AIDS really were doing this, what would have motivated them and had they been treated unfairly by society?
One expert says this attitude is not unique to Tianjin and society as a whole needs to reflect on it. Shunning people with AIDS and treating them unequally is almost universal. It would be dangerous to continue like this.
The renowned AIDS prevention expert Gao Yaojie says in 2000, she heard an AIDS patient in Henan had used a needle to prick people. She went to see him and told him, “I haven’t got any power to tell you what you must or must not do, but I do want to tell you that you shouldn’t go pricking innocent people. They haven’t done anything wrong.” The man told her he had never pricked ordinary people. He only pricked the kind of pot-bellied man who drives to dance halls and other places fronting for the sex industry.
Gao Yaojie says this person has now died. He contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in hospital after a car accident. Later, his wife left him and no one cared about him. People around him were either indifferent or antagonistic. Through no fault of his own, he had been infected with an incurable disease and this treatment made him feel that society was being extremely unfair to him. It was this that produced his desire for revenge.
Gao Yaojie says, “When I went to his home, he was lying on the bed. He wanted me to sit on a stool several meters away but I sat straight down next to the bed. He started to cry and said I was the first person in a very long time who dared to be so close to him.”
Gao Yaojie says that what people with AIDS need is love, care and warmth. The greater the pressure society puts on them, the more they are likely to fight back.
A government official says that in one sense society’s attitude towards people with AIDS is not only a humanitarian issue. It’s also an issue of social stability and a political issue.