Friday, March 17, 2006

Today's column

Expat Life:

A Murder in Beijing Sparks
Soul-Searching on Security


Our little expat world has been rocked by a murder. An American “trailing spouse” of an energy company executive here in Beijing was killed in her home in the middle of the day. She lived in a nice housing compound just a few miles north of us. Because no one knows precisely what happened except that she was found in a pool of blood, rumors quickly began flying: Some said she was stabbed, others that she was clubbed to death.

This murder immediately became conversation topic A, with most expats simultaneously feeling an intense sadness for the victim and her family and a distinct chill at the possibility that maybe our little gated communities are not quite as secure as they seem. A similar crime would similarly terrify and obsess any upper-middle-class suburban community in America, but I think the unease here was more acute for a couple of reasons.

Most foreign residents of Beijing really don't fear violent crime, in part because gun control is stringently enforced. You worry about the pollution, about driving on the crowded, crazy roads, about the lack of sanitary awareness and about contracting bird flu. But not about being robbed or having your kids abducted. One friend told me that whenever her family goes home to the U.S. in the summer, she has to remind her six-year-old to stay by her side in grocery stores or malls because the girl is so accustomed to running freely up and down the aisles.

The murder also forced many of us to really ponder the way we interact with locals. Anyone with a shred of sensitivity lives in one of Beijing's many gated compounds harboring at least a tiny sense of guilt. You have to question just how much the locals resent your presence on what was farmland not too long ago. The income disparity is just too glaring to ignore. The young, fresh-off-the-farm guards at these complexes are generally paid less in a month than we spend on a couple of weekly trips to the grocery store. It doesn’t take a terribly overactive imagination to picture them accepting a payoff or running in the other direction if an angry mob ever descended on the place.

The sense of unease was not lifted by unconfirmed press reports that the police initially told the management of her compound to inform residents that the victim died of a heart attack. With solid information so hard to come by, various stories were circulating, with one constant: the victim had a lot of cash in the house. That would not be so unusual here, where credit-card acceptance is very low, but people filled in the information vacuum with their own fears. In the days following the murder, rumors abounded. One such rumor: The victim was buying furniture that day and was killed by someone who knew she had the money on hand.

I wondered how much the ubiquitous ayis, or housekeepers, were discussing this situation and what stories they had heard. With the help of my Chinese teacher, I asked our ayi, Yoo Ying, if she had heard about the crime. “Yes, it's horrible," she said, blaming it on "Beijing people." Not surprisingly, Yoo Ying is from Anhui province, many hundreds of miles south of Beijing. But her theory was not the only one to reflect deeply held qualms. The stories being passed around our world just as surely illustrate where our fears lie.

It is not clear when or if we will find out what really happened. We called the local branch of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security. A policeman there told us, "The entire criminal investigation team is working on this case and local police are strengthening the guard in that area." He also noted that murder cases are very rare in the area, “which is noted for its good security as many expatriates live there.” He wouldn't discuss the process of the investigation, but said, "Once the case is cracked, we'll immediately inform the neighborhood."

We aren't holding our breath. Nabbing a suspect or even finding the person guilty won't erase the fears, because there is little faith in the judicial system's ability to find and convict the right person. Also, the fright unleashed here is not that there is a lone, crazed murderer on the loose, but that perhaps our whole sense of security is misplaced.

The generally unspoken thought is that we are protected by an invisible force field because any Chinese national messing with a foreigner would face stiff and immediate retribution. The government clearly does care about our safety; they want and need the many expat businesspeople here. And China is reputed by Amnesty International to carry out more executions than the rest of the world combined. Although it is quite discomfiting to be protected by something you find abhorrent, the prospect of not being protected by it is, frankly, even more unsettling.

Since the murder, there has been a lot of talk of becoming more vigilant, being more careful with what you say around your ayis or other workers, checking to be sure windows and doors are locked and keeping your cash and any impending purchases low key. One friend told me she has been having nightmares and got her landlord to install a new, more-secure storm door.

Most of the compounds seem to have tightened security. Ours certainly has. Guests who used to appear at our door are now held up at the gate while we are called. Jacob's teacher, who lives in a compound across the street, has been barred from cutting through our grounds on the way to school, an example of security overcompensation.

As for myself, I'm disturbed but not stirred to action. I regard this as a sad aberration and am not doing anything different aside from being a little extra careful that the doors and windows are locked at night. We live in enough of a bubble and my goal remains breaking it down, not securing its perimeter.