Two recent stabbing attacks on young children, one at a primary school in Guangdong and the next at a kindergarten in Jiangsu, already had China on edge late last week.
Then came another horrific incident in Shandong last Friday in which five children and a teacher were injured by a man with a hammer. The perpetrator, who Xinhua reports as having gone berserk after being told that his home was illegally-constructed and would have to be torn down, then set fire to himself and died.
It is the fifth attack in the space of a few weeks, the worst of which saw 8 children killed at a Fujian primary school in March.
Confusion reigned after the Jiangsu attacks. “If you want to vent your anger and stab someone, you can stab corrupt officials! Why hurt these children?” one onlooker yelled, according to the Global Times.
The domestic media has also been asking what could be behind an outbreak of such similar incidents. One interpretation is that they demonstrate disintegrating social cohesion. Not many editors are ready to say this explicitly, although the Legal Daily has pointed to online surveys claiming as much, one of which suggested that 64% of respondents attributed an attack in March to “the widening gap between rich and poor in China”.
It does look like the aggressors seem to have been down-on-their-luck economically, or unemployed. Otherwise there are few common themes, beyond the choice of knives as weapons.
Indirectly this points to the difficulty of getting hold of guns in China. But it has also added another layer of horror, in a country in which the one-child policy generates a parental psychology all of its own. Hence it is being suggested (more in the international media than at home) that the attackers have chosen children because that seemed the most effective way of striking a savage blow at society in general.
Although most attacks have taken place in relatively well-off regions along the Chinese coast, some newspapers have still been asking if the attackers may have been suffering from a sense of economic dislocation. The Foshan Daily, for instance, quotes local professor Zhang Xiping, in referring to economic factors, including the high cost of living and surging housing prices.
The China Youth Daily is keen to rebut the theory, in an interview with a specialist of its own, Li Meijin, a professor in criminal psychology. “There will always be things in society that people are dissatisfied with,” Li argues. “There may be social causes, but they are not all-encompassing, so they cannot be reasons to evade responsibility.”
Others wonder if media coverage may have led to copycat attacks. Professor Li thinks there might be a case. “Reporting on crimes is a double-edged sword. You can’t avoid negative, harmful effects,” he says.
The authorities clearly suspect as much too, especially with memories of another gruesome series of incidents in the second half of 2004, when five separate attacks on schools across the country resulted in 13 deaths. So news editors are now being required to adopt Xinhua’s official line in their coverage. That is a departure from treatment before last week, in which the incidents were more fully discussed.
An op-ed piece in the Southern Metropolis Daily argues that the clampdown is a mistake. “Media reports serve as a warning system, and in particular put pressure on those responsible for managing our society,” writes Chang Ping. “They compel everyone to reflect on social problems that face us…”
One such problem is mental illness, a topic we have mentioned before in WiC (see issues 16 and 53) but which is conspicuously absent in the domestic media’s coverage.
For the moment, the focus is more on reassuring anxious parents, with plenty of photos of the new equipment on offer to ward off potential intruders. Not all of it is especially sophisticated. The Beijing News reports on the 200 forked staves being handed out to school guards in the city’s Xicheng District, for instance. Something similar is on hand at a primary school in Changsha, where parents have established a volunteer team to patrol the campus in shifts. Who can blame them?
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