At 4.50pm last Friday a large explosion ripped through the crowd outside a kindergarten in Feng county, Jiangsu province.
A tower of orange flame went up into the sky and people were thrown to the floor. Videos of the aftermath shot on smartphones show adults and young children bloodied and lifeless. One woman was stripped naked by the force of the blast.
Initially police thought it was an accident – perhaps one of the gas canisters in the nearby food carts had leaked or overheated.
But the truth was more sinister – a young man named Xu Taoran had planted the bomb and detonated it as the school gates opened. Eight people died and 65 were injured.
Not much is known of Xu – he was 22 years-old and hailed from the neighbouring county of Quanzhou. He had been diagnosed with a neurological condition that affected his internal organs and had dropped out of college. Neighbours reported he had been behaving erratically in the days leading up to the blast and he wrote on a wall near his apartment that having children was a “crime”.
“Two people commit a crime, two people die; a group commits a crime, the group dies, a country commits a crime, the country dies, an ethnic group commits a crime, the group dies. India, China and Bangladesh, none will meet a good end,” it said.
For the police, it was an open and shut case. They found Xu’s DNA – he was also killed in the blast – and when they raided his home they found a modified gas canister similar to the one used to make the bomb.
“The case is closed,” said Pei Jun, deputy head of the Jiangsu public security office less than 24 hours after the attack.
But that wasn’t good enough for many Chinese. They had questions and wanted answers. Compounding the issue the state censors stepped in – closing the discussion thread on Sina Weibo and instructing the media to be cautious in their reporting.
Conspiracy theories began to fly – was the government covering up a terrorist attack, some asked? Had Xu been badly treated by the authorities – as in the recent case of Jia Jinglong, a young man from Hebei who killed the village head who had demolished his house?
“What is the truth behind this?” asked one. “This explanation protects those in power,” wrote another.
Of course, attacks on schools and school children are not without precedent in China – in 2010 there were three on consecutive days.
Another recent case involved what was originally believed to be a traffic accident involving a kindergarten bus in Shandong. Eleven children, at least five holding South Korean passports, died after their school bus burst into flames in a tunnel last month. A police investigation, however, later confirmed that the blaze was set off by the driver, who was angry that his overtime and night shift pay had been cut. The parents refused to accept the explanation saying the driver was a pleasant man who they knew well. “Investigators did not look at the state of the vehicle, including how old it was,” one of the fathers told Yonhap News agency.
“The unconvincing explanation by the Chinese government gives an impression that they were trying to frame it as the fault of the driver,” he added.
But in reality, the case in Jiangsu is probably much as the authorities have portrayed it.
Over the years sociologists have warned that the pressure of modern Chinese life is proving too much for many individuals.
Young people have to do well in school, get a good job and find a suitable partner – often by their mid-twenties. Set against a background of rapid social change and sometimes unfair social policies, this can all seem unachievable.
“Whenever there’s a lot of social upheaval, people are in a less secure, stable situation in general,” the New York Times quoted one sociologist as saying.
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