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Report from the Beijing Olympics: The Murder of Todd Bachman

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On the day after the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a Chinese man brutally stabbed to death an American visitor, Todd Bachman, the father of a 2004 Olympian and the father-in-law of the current coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team. This should have been a huge story, but instead, the details of the incident have been all but ignored by the media in both China and the United States.

The storyline that was put out by the Chinese government -- and accepted by the U.S. media -- is that a deranged 47-year-old man named Tang Yongming went to a popular tourist site, the Drum Tower, and randomly stabbed three people, Todd Bachman, his wife Barbara and a female Chinese guide who was accompanying them. The man then committed suicide by jumping off the tower. Although there is no reason to believe that Tang specifically targeted Americans, there may be more to the story than has been revealed.

To begin with, the murderer chose a culturally significant location for his crime. Traditionally, the drums at the Drum Tower were used to pound out the time. When the United States, Japan and several European nations sent armed forces to China in 1900 to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, the foreign soldiers invaded the Tower and slashed the leather drums to pieces with their bayonets. When the Republic of China was established in 1912, the new government of Sun Yat-sen renamed the site Realizing Humiliation Tower (Mingchi Lou) and the Tower became a symbol of the "crimes of foreign devils."

After this year's March riots in Tibet and the pro-Tibetan response from the West, the Chinese Communist Party launched a heavy-handed propaganda campaign within China that whipped up ultra-nationalist sentiment and portrayed Westerners as foreign devils reincarnate. Several foreign correspondents based in Beijing have related to me unpleasant incidents from this period.

China watchers pointed out that the Chinese government responded with unusual rapidity and openness in revealing details about Tang Yongming. But it shared nothing about the nature of the attack or about the Chinese victim. I was told that Tang attacked Barbara Bachman first, then the guide, and finally Todd Bachman. On the other hand, thirteen days after the attack, United States Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth was quoted as saying that the guide was the first to be stabbed.

Taking advantage of my access to the Main Press Center at the Beijing Olympics, I visited the offices of Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, and the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I asked for the name of the Chinese guide and the current status of her health. No one at either office could give me an answer to either of my questions. Two days later, the Chinese authorities issued a release stating that the guide, known only by her family name Duan, had been discharged from a hospital.

Considering that the Chinese government had promised that the Beijing Games would be the most secure ever, it was enormously embarrassing that a relative of a U.S. coach was murdered at a well-known tourist spot on the very first day of competition. In a land where saving face is of paramount importance, it doesn't get any worse. So it's not surprising that Chinese journalists would be afraid to talk about the tragedy. But what are we to make of the relative silence of the U.S. media? Many American journalists were quick to jump on the story of the little Chinese girl who pretended to sing at the Opening Ceremony, but was actually only lip-synching. Yet when a really important incident, the murder of an American, took place, most U.S. journalists just copy and pasted the Chinese press release.

The good news is that Barbara Bachman appears to be on the road to recovery. Thus far, neither she nor her daughter, Elisabeth "Wiz" McCutcheon, who was with her parents at the time of the attack, has spoken to the press. Presumably, someone high up asked them to remain silent until the Beijing Olympics are over. Meanwhile, the U.S. men's and women's volleyball teams have played brilliantly and have paid honor to the Bachmans.

I suppose it is possible that there is no connection between the Chinese government's anti-foreigner propaganda and Tang Yongming's murder of a foreigner at a site known as a symbol of foreign oppression. Perhaps Tang just happened to be touring the Drum Tower with a knife in his pocket when he went berserk. Perhaps it wasn't foreigners he hated, but women, and he only attacked Todd Bachman when the American came to his wife's aid. Still, I can't help but feel that although Tang Yongming is the clear villain in this affair, the Chinese Communist Party bears a degree of responsibility for having created an atmosphere that was hostile to foreigners.