4 U.S. college instructors injured in stabbing attack in China

HONG KONG — Four instructors from a small Iowa college were injured in a stabbing attack while on a teaching trip to China, their school and officials in both countries said.

Chinese police said Tuesday that a suspect had been arrested and that those injured were receiving treatment but not in life-threatening condition.

The rare attack on foreigners in the powerful security state comes as China is trying to repair ties with the United States and revive tourism to help boost a sluggish economy after three years of isolation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The four instructors from Cornell College, a private liberal arts college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, were injured “in a serious incident” during a daytime visit to a public park, the school’s president, Jonathan Brand, confirmed in a statement Monday.

They were accompanied by a faculty member from the school’s Chinese partner institution, Beihua University, during the attack in the northeastern Chinese city of Jilin.

Brand said the school had been in contact with all four and was assisting them.

Graphic video circulating on social media showed one woman and two men, one of them soaked in blood, lying on the ground at Beishan Park in central Jilin, where there are multiple ancient temples.

Four Cornell college instructors reportedly stabbed in China (via X)
Four Cornell college instructors reportedly stabbed in China (via X)

All three appeared conscious and were using or reaching for their cellphones as others looked on.

A State Department spokesperson said it was “aware of the stabbing of three U.S. citizens in Jilin City” on Monday.

“We are in touch with local authorities and are closely monitoring their investigation into this incident,” it said.

“All three U.S. citizens are receiving medical treatment and plan to return to the United States upon discharge from the hospital.”

The U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said in a post on X that he was "angered and deeply troubled by the stabbing of 3 US citizens + a non-citizen resident of Iowa in Jilin, China."

He added that a U.S. Consular Officer had visited the four in Jilin Hospital where they are receiving treatment.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed the incident on Tuesday after hours of public silence from authorities.

“All the injured were immediately taken to the hospital and received proper medical treatment, and none of them are in life-threatening condition,” spokesperson Lin Jian said at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “The police have preliminarily determined that this case is an isolated incident and are currently conducting further investigations.”

In a statement later Tuesday that was carried by Chinese state media, the Public Security Bureau of Jilin’s Chuanying district said that a man surnamed Cui, 55, had been arrested Monday.

He had "collided with a foreign national while walking in Beishan Park. He then stabbed this foreign national and three other accompanying foreign nationals, as well as a Chinese tourist who attempted to stop his attack," the statement said.

Chinese state media, which often report on Chinese nationals who are the victims of violence in the U.S., had earlier been silent on the attack, and discussion of it appeared to be tightly controlled on China’s heavily censored social media.

Prominent Chinese commentator Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times, said Tuesday that he hoped it was an isolated incident that would not “negatively impact the exchange of personnel between China and other countries.”

“Our people are generally very friendly towards foreign tourists appearing in markets and tourist attractions,” he said in a Weibo post that has since been deleted. “Regardless of the assailant’s motive in this incident, it is an isolated case within the broader context of Chinese society.”

Iowa State Rep. Adam Zabner confirmed that his brother, David Zabner, was among the victims of the attack on Monday, which was a public holiday in China. He said his brother had stitches from being stabbed in the arm and remained hospitalized but was doing well and in good spirits.

David Zabner, a graduate student at Tufts University who is an alumnus of Cornell College and previously lectured there, had participated in the exchange program before and returned this year, Adam Zabner said.

David Zabner (Courtesy Rep. Adam Zabner)
David Zabner (Courtesy Rep. Adam Zabner)

According to a 2018 news release, Beihua provides funding for Cornell professors to travel and live in China while providing instruction in computer science, mathematics and physics over a two-week period. Cornell College said Monday that no students were taking part in the program.

Phone calls to Beihua University and the joint program with Cornell were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

It was unclear whether the teachers had been targeted or were attacked randomly.

Michael Meyer, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh who previously taught in Jilin, told NBC News: “It’s exceedingly rare for foreigners, let alone four university teachers, to be attacked in China.”

The attack took place as the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, promote people-to-people exchanges as part of an effort to improve bilateral relations. U.S. officials are considering easing a Level 3 travel advisory for mainland China, its second-highest warning level, in part over concerns that it could be discouraging such exchanges.

During a visit to the U.S. last November, Chinese President Xi Jinping who has a longstanding personal connection to Iowa, since he first traveled there in 1985 as part of an agricultural delegation said Beijing was ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years.

The number of Americans studying in China has dropped off sharply in the last decade. There are currently almost 300,000 Chinese students in the United States, while there are fewer than 900 Americans studying in China, according to U.S. data.

Lin, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Tuesday that the stabbing attack would not affect the normal conduct of U.S.-China cultural exchanges.

“China is recognized as one of the safest countries in the world,” he said. “China has always and will continue to take effective measures to ensure the safety of all foreigners in the country.”

Though China has some of the world’s strictest gun control laws, knife attacks are not uncommon. Last month, two people were killed and 21 wounded in a knife attack at a hospital in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.