Last week a 48 year-old man walked into a kindergarten in Shaanxi province and hacked seven children to death with a meat cleaver. He then committed suicide. It was the eighth time a lone assailant had knifed children in a school or kindergarten in two months.
Three of the attacks happened on three consecutive days in late April. The youngest victim was just three years-old. All told, the attackers have killed 17 children and maimed 50. And it could have been worse: police in Beijing admitted that they’d thwarted a further seven attempts to kill schoolchildren in recent weeks.
In a situation akin to what Americans felt after 9/11, China is currently experiencing a collective spasm of shock. Around the office water cooler and at restaurant tables, it is all panicked Chinese parents can talk about.
Why has it happened?
Xu Yuyuan wounded 29 children in the eastern province of Jiangsu when he attacked a kindergarten on April 29. The 47 year-old was tried on Saturday, with Xinhua reporting he has been sentenced to death. When asked why he had committed the crime, he told the court that he was “venting his anger against society”.
There is general agreement that Xu’s motive was shared by the other assailants. “I don’t think these recent school attacks were related to mental health troubles,” says Zhao Jingping, head of the China Society of Psychiatry. “Obviously these were premeditated attacks, deliberately committed – people with mental problems don’t have the analytical ability or judgement to plot these crimes. These attackers mainly aimed to attract the media’s attention or give vent to their hatred of society. These were rooted in social factors.”
What has made the situation more alarming is that they have not been restricted to a single region – denying parents at least a sense of relief that it will not happen in their own backyard.
No, they’ve occurred nationwide, with the first in Fujian – while others followed in Guangdong, Guangxi and Shandong, as well as Jiangsu and Shaanxi.
Nor is there any sign of collusion among the attackers; each acted alone and oblivious of the others. They often committed suicide too – which made them seem closer to terrorist bombers in Iraq or Afghanistan than fellow Chinese.
In keeping with the analogy to suicide bombers, the Wall Street Journal quoted Ma Ai, a leading sociologist at the China University of Politics, Science and Law as saying: “I think these attacks are more and more like terrorism.”
The word is apt. The attacks have indeed struck terror into the mainstream of Chinese society. China has always been a child-loving and family-centric culture (you don’t rack up a population of 1.3 billion without an innate love of rearing kids).
In today’s China – thanks to the one-child policy – the majority of couples also have only a single offspring. Where parents (and grandparents) have a single loved one to dote on, they will live in terror of anything happening to that only-child.
The country’s most popular and outspoken blogger Han Han (see WiC53) agrees that the attacks on children were calculated to have the maximum impact on the collective psyche: “It has become a fad to go kill people at kindergartens and schools because in the process of killing, you meet the least resistance, kill the most number of people and create the greatest public terror, so it is the most effective way of exacting revenge on society. There is no exit in this society, so killing the weaker becomes their only way out.”
An isolated attack could have been written-off as the lone act of a madman. It is the fact that so many schools have been targeted in such rapid succession that has led many to conclude that they represent something far more serious: a cancerous sickness in society that has been growing, largely unobserved in the shadow of the country’s high GDP growth.
Reuters interviewed a worried mother outside a kindergarten in Beijing. She was in no doubt of what these eight attacks represented: “The deep social conflict is being reflected in these events … the gap between rich and poor is too wide so there may be people who have developed an anti-social personality. These types of people cannot be controlled by security measures.”
So how has the government responded?
With security measures.
The underlying causes of the attacks may be complex ones but the Chinese government prides itself on being expert at resolving security problems.
So it’s immediate response has been to promise to ‘strike hard’ against potential attackers, and it has looked to reassure an unnerved populace by posting large numbers of police outside schools, under orders to shoot-to-kill.
The minister of public security, Meng Jianzhu, has responded belligerently: “We must come down so hard on the perpetrators that they wouldn’t dare to put their hands on children and we must shore up security to such a level that they are unable to lay their hands on children.”
However, what is more interesting is Wen Jiabao’s assessment of the situation. The prime minister has repeatedly shown in past crises that he is more attuned to the public mood than his colleagues. In an interview with Phoenix TV, a visibly moved Wen said: “We feel sorry in our hearts for the murders and the children’s deaths. We need to not only adopt serious security measures, but also tackle the deeper causes behind these problems.”
Is inequality the deeper problem?
Yes, that seems to be the consensus: even state news agency Xinhua has said so. In an article on its website last week it reported that the nation’s Gini coefficient – a commonly used measure for wealth inequality – had reached 0.47. This was past the “recognised warning level” of 0.4, Xinhua warned. It also cited Chang Xiuze of the National Development and Reform Commission as believing “the gap between rich and poor has become unreasonable.”
Based on older data, Beijing Normal University calculated in 2007 that the top 10% of Chinese make an income 23 times that of the bottom 10%. The comparable figure for 1998 was just 7.3 times.
More recently, Zeng Xiangquan, the dean of Renmin University’s School of Labour and Human Resources, calculated that the richest 10% of China’s population control 45% of the country’s wealth.
WiC’s readers may recall the article we featured in issue 37 in which we cited the experience of Hui Huang, a former investment banker, who turned blogger. She drove to a remote town in Hebei province to check out an investment. “I had never heard of Shangyi County before,” Huang wrote, “and had never expected a county only three hour’s drive from Beijing would be so poverty-stricken.”
Huang discovers the county hangs by a tenuous economic thread – dependent on Rmb50 million ($7.3 million) of subsidies from the central government. “There are no industries, and farmland is being returned to forest and grassland,” Huang notes, “If you’re looking for a definition of dirt poor, this is it”.
On her way back to the capital city, she and a friend stop at a mansion on the edge of Beijing’s sixth ring road.
After the poverty of Shangyi, she encounters a rolling estate with a mini-golf course, 20 hectares of private persimmon forest, a pond and swimming pool – and all surrounding a 4,000 square metre house, complete with art collection, auditorium and gym. The mansion is owned by a real estate developer.
Huang wrote: “I felt mixed emotions: in the morning I was in one of the poorest counties in China, which was deserted, and where local life seemed to offer no hope or vitality. And now, three hours later, I was in one of China’s richest private houses enjoying beauty and pleasure. It almost felt as if I’d been in a time machine.”
The disparities between China’s haves and have nots would be less of an issue, perhaps, if the new rich showed more judgement in how they spend their millions (and billions). For example, there was a whiff of the Marie Antoinette about the behaviour of a female entrepreneur from Shaanxi who spent $586,000 on a Tibetan Mastiff dog. She then had it chauffeured from the airport by a convoy of 30 Mercedes-Benz limos.
In fact, in WiC43 we pointed out that class tensions were rising. A survey by the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences found that 96% felt “resentful towards the rich”. Around 70% reckoned there was a “big gap” between rich and poor and 50% estimated that it would continue to widen. The poll covered a representative sample of social groups, reported the Xinmin Evening News.
So there’s reason to be worried?
The China Youth Daily thinks so: “The occurrence of campus massacres shows the current accumulation of social discontent has reached a very serious level; if not channelled and guided, these individual terrorist incidents will reoccur to cause serious negative impact on social stability.”
Anecdotal evidence from WiC’s conversations in China suggest that it is problem too. Some see the school attacks as the ‘canary in the coalmine’. A senior Chinese-born banker told WiC that many of his compatriots have quietly started speaking of a coming ‘era of turmoil’. Others in the professional classes – worried about their children’s safety – even talk about leaving the country.
This loss of confidence stands in contrast to some of the glowing endorsements of the “Chinese development model” that now crop up in media and academic circles overseas.
In fairness China news and commentary website Danwei points out that there was a similar spike in knife attacks in 2004, so what has occurred is not totally unprecedented. However, inequality has worsened over the intervening years, and these attacks have provoked a far stronger reaction.
One thing is clear: the problem is not going away. China’s 30 year experiment with the rawest form of capitalism on the planet has produced a cancer that needs curing.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.