US college instructor recounts surviving stabbing in China to Iowa public radio

An American college instructor has recounted the horror of surviving a stabbing attack in China, offering the first personal account of an incident that has been given limited media coverage within the country.

David Zabner is one of four Cornell College instructors attacked Monday while visiting a busy public park in the northeast Chinese city of Jilin, where they were teaching on a partnership program with a local university.

Police in Jilin said they “quickly arrived at the scene” and “swiftly apprehended” a 55-year-old man. The suspect, identified by his surname Cui, “collided with a foreigner while walking,” then stabbed the victim, according to a police statement. Three other foreigners and a Chinese person who attempted to intervene were also stabbed by the suspect, police said.

The statement did not address the suspect’s motive for the attack and said the investigation was ongoing. China’s Foreign Ministry said police believe the stabbing was an “isolated incident,” based on preliminary assessment.

“Police told us that he was unemployed and down on his luck, and that somebody in our group bumped into the man,” Zabner told Iowa Public Radio News from his hospital room. “And he decided to respond in the way he responded.”

Cornell College instructor David Zabner survived the stabbing attack in Jilin, China. - Courtesy Adam Zabner
Cornell College instructor David Zabner survived the stabbing attack in Jilin, China. - Courtesy Adam Zabner

Zabner said he first realized something was wrong when he heard a scream while descending a hill in Beishan Park, a popular green space in Jilin city center.

“I turned around to find a man brandishing a knife at me. I didn’t immediately realize what was happening. I thought my coworkers had been pushed, and he, for some reason was trying to push me,” Zabner said.

“And then I looked down at my shoulder and realized, ‘I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed.’”

Zabner was stabbed in the arm 6 inches below his shoulder, and paramedics arrived roughly 20 minutes later, he told Iowa Public Radio News.

Chinese police said the five victims were immediately rushed to hospital and did not suffer life-threatening injuries.

In online footage and photos purportedly showing the aftermath of the attack, Zabner was lying on his side and using his phone in between two other wounded instructors, with the back of his shirt soaked in blood.

The videos and photos emerged on Chinese social media on Monday but were swiftly erased by censors, along with any discussions about the stabbing.

There were no visible signs of increased security at Beishan Park when a CNN team visited the scene of the attack at around dusk on Tuesday. The scenic spot was busy with families and retirees alike, with many gathering on the banks of its lake while others danced in a square.

Limited coverage

The attack comes at a delicate moment for China, which has been seeking to lure back foreign visitors following three years of stringent Covid-19 border controls. It also comes amid efforts to boost educational exchanges with the US as the two countries try to stabilize their fraught relationship.

Following an initial silence, Chinese state media later briefly reported on statements provided by the Foreign Ministry and Jilin police – while adhering closely to the official account.

On social media, some users expressed concerns about the attack’s potential impact on China’s global image and the willingness of foreigners to visit the country. Others appeared to question the official account, and blamed “anti-Western” and “anti-foreigner propaganda” as well as the rise of nationalism, for the incident.

Three of the instructors are US citizens, and the other is a non-citizen resident of Iowa, according to the US State Department.

US Ambassador Nicholas Burns said Monday he was “angered and deeply troubled” by the stabbing.

“A US consular Officer visited the 4 in Jilin Hospital today where they are receiving treatment. We are doing all we can to help them (and) hope for their full recovery,” he said in a post on X.

This was Zabner’s second trip to China with Cornell College, which has partnered with Beihua University in Jilin since 2018. Zabner joined the program in November 2019 to teach computer science courses at Beihua University, according to Iowa Public Radio News.

“I was really excited to get to see it in the summer,” he told the radio station.

Zabner’s brother, Iowa state Rep. Adam Zabner, told CNN that his sibling was “doing well” and “has been stitched up and seems to be recovering,” after speaking to him on Tuesday.

“I’m just extremely grateful that my brother is OK and that he survived this attack,” he told CNN. “The hope of my family is to get my brother back home as soon as possible and get them healthy.”

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