China School Violence: Let the Blame Game Commence

Too much ink has already been spilled on the subject of recent school violence in China, so I will try to avoid rehashing facts we already know. I would avoid the topic altogether except that the “Blame Game” has begun in earnest and has included some very odd assertions.

My favorite comment thus far in this entire school violence discussion is by Cindy Fan, a professor at UCLA, who cut through a lot of the bullshit with this comment in the New York Times:

Do these incidents tell us something about Chinese society that we do not already know?  I doubt it.  We know that in China the gap between the rich and poor is wide, cities are densely populated, living outside the societal norm (e.g., staying single, divorced) is stressful, the pressure for men to be successful is especially high, and mental illness (and many other physical illnesses) is very much a stigma.

Very well said. It was useful to point out some of these issues after the first or second rampage, but this is all old hat at this point. The discussion needs to either move down to specific policies or perhaps simply end.

Some people do not want the discussion to end, because the blame has yet to be assessed in full, and we humans love to point fingers when tragedy strikes. The actual killers of course deserve the most opprobrium, but that isn’t very satisfying; moreover, once these guys are in jail (or executed), there is no one to rail against.

Who else can we yell at? Bad psychiatrists and therapists? Property developers? Rich people? No, none of these classes makes sense, either because of identification problems or the difficulty in pointing out substandard behavior.

The obvious target is the government, which will be around long after the culprits are punished and which does bear some responsibility here. One editorial published in a Henan newspaper that is making the rounds on the Intertubes takes up the case against the government with gusto:

On Wednesday, Dahe Bao, a newspaper in Henan Province, posted on the Internet a fiery editorial that pointed to misbehavior by government officials as the root cause of the problem.

“After being treated unfairly or being bullied by the authorities, and unable to take revenge on those government departments that are safeguarded by state security forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker people,” said the editorial by a writer named Shi Chuan.

As I said, the government does bear some responsibility here. Not only are the authorities in charge of public safety, but many of the policy and enforcement decisions made by the government are a deep source of dissatisfaction. Moreover, the civil and criminal justice systems still leave a lot to be desired, meaning that there are indeed a lot of people out there who feel that there is no legitimate avenue for obtaining justice.

Stanford’s Zhou Xueguang highlights property and land use rights issues:

Large-scale and, in many cases, forced urbanization is carried out through migration, land seizure and residential relocation in both rural and urban areas.

Local governments and Beijing share culpability here, although it would be a mistake to see this as a fault of general policy as opposed to shoddy implementation at the local level. Moreover, often the specific incidents that trigger disputes come from the actions of property developers (admittedly often acting in cahoots with local authorities).

Zhou also finds fault with government’s response to these types of disputes:

At another level, what is really troubling is the way the Chinese government handles such conflicts.  It has been trying hard to “contain” symptoms of social disruption, instead of cultivating mechanisms to diffuse them.  The bureaucratic machine  — often efficient, remote, impersonal and ruthless  —  has often engendered as much social resentment as it has resolved.

While I definitely agree with Zhou’s assessment of government’s inability to respond to social disruptions, I find this argument for identifying root causes of the school violence unsatisfying. I have the same problem with a recent post in Beijing Calling:

Whenever accidents occur such as the ones in mines or a spate of attacks like these, China does not conduct any thorough investigations or public inquiries to understand why these things happen and what recommendations should be made to avoid the same thing from occurring.

At the same time, the government is further squeezing the existence of civil society groups, like non-governmental organizations or NGOs from doing their work in China.

Again, I agree with all the individual assertions here, but as an explanation for the school violence, I am not so sure that laying such blame on the government makes sense.

The argument here, it seems to me, is that because the government is not able to successfully resolve social tensions, is hamfisted in the way it implements certain policies, and is squeezing out NGOs from filling the gap, that society is at greater risk of such atrocities.

I will go so far as to say that the inability of the government to narrow the income gap, the cozy relationship with property developers, and a variety of other policy mistakes has led to an increase in social disruptions, demonstrations, and certain types of violent acts (I’m thinking of property damage and assaults).

Barnard College’s Yang Guobin takes it one step further:

The common thread is the crisis of authority, law and governance. Government authorities, far from being the administrators of law and justice, have become the sources and targets of grievances and despair. When citizens have no legitimate channels of seeking justice, violence is then seen as an option.

There is a huge gap, however, between a dispossessed person breaking windows at the site of a new shopping mall (that used to be his home) and someone hacking up kids. In the absence of viable institutions to remedy economic grievances, one would expect perhaps that people might take matters into their own hands. Killing third parties is something else entirely.

To wrap up, I think that a discussion about causes and remedies is useful. Moreover, talking about the failures of government and where policy should go from here is very important. Government does a lot of things wrong. Economic policy has for a long time traded high growth for inequality, for example. Local government has a variety of related problems, from corruption to tough containment of social disruptions (i.e. protests).

But all this anti-government rhetoric should also be grounded in reality. The government was not the proximate actor here, nor is the government responsible for every unjust act that takes place in the country. The government has not, contrary to the Dahe Bao editorial, boxed these people into such a corner that their only option is to slice and dice at the local kindergarten.

I worry about how all of this will be seen by foreigners that may already have a negative view of China. A glimpse of this can be seen in an editorial written by NPR’s Scott Simon. You know what you are going to get when you see the headline “Suffer the Little Children of a Brutal Machine.” After noting that public dissent is repressed by the government, Simon cited the Dahe Bao editorial as stating:

[S]chool attacks occur because people in China are forbidden any real outlet to express opinions, vote for change, or vent frustrations.

It always seems to come down to this. In the U.S., school shootings are the fault of the parents, or video games, or drugs, but in China, the fault lies with the authoritarian government.

Too convenient.


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  1. Zuo Ai

    I dunno if the school shooting analogy is warranted. Teenagers shooting up a school seems more likely attributable to parents and video games than a slew of middle aged men attacking small children.

    I mean, one might easily say “internet addiction!…parents!…exam system!” if the Chinese killers were teens (or even college students, although less so), because of the assailants age. Whereas you seem to be implying that the difference in fault laying in this case, is due to some anti-China (or pro US?) bias. I just don’t think that particular comparison is apt.

    • Gotta agree, to some extent. A middle aged man knifing a kindergarten isn’t quite the same as a kid shooting up his home-ec class for being picked on by the jocks.

      Excellent post, though. Refreshing as usual.

      • Jones

        Agreed with these guys. School shootings in the US were from fellow students and had to do with social problems within the school, usually involving being bullied (except for the one over in Jonesboro, Arkansas in which it was actually the bullies doing the shooting). These guys are older men running into a school and indiscriminately hacking away at kids for some outside source that affects their life more than just watching violent movies or listening to rap music and actually taking it seriously.

        Actually, it’s worse. I’ve heard some violent lyrics in rap music, but even the worst has never mentioned taking a meat cleaver to classrooms full of kindergarten children. Even if you bring up video games, it’s still worse. GTA doesn’t even have kids in the game. Postal 2, either. Running into a school and bayoneting cute little kids is some seriously fucked up shit and screams of deeper dementia than that caused by a regular ol’ breakup or job loss.

        I don’t blame the government for the guy going in and killing the kids. That’s retarded. However, I will blame them if they don’t at least try to do a serious investigation as to what’s causing this problem, and others problems, and move to prevent them. You can slap a few heavily-armed guards in front of the school, but that’s just like building a dome over Chernobyl and hoping the fallout just blows over without actually figuring out what happened and how to keep it from ever happening again. For the good of The People.

        • bai ren

          Kedafu has got a picture of a little boy weating a jacket. on the back is written ‘hunt me’. Now we all know how english is almost aesteticaly and meaninglessly used in China… But a 3 year old’s jacket saying ‘hunt me’ gotta wonder

    • zball

      My take on the analogy is: it merely serves as probing questions to help audiences to think more deeply.

  2. Mike

    this blog offers some of the most balanced and nuanced commentary on china I have ever seen. Great work, Stan.

  3. Jay (a different one)

    It is easy to blame the government, if only because yes, they do make many mistakes, but what government doesn’t?
    I think there is more to it than the simplistic assumption that if only Old 100-Names has a choice between Zheng Barack or Wang John to ignore their plight once voted into office, then all would be wonderful.
    For one, what makes people act the way they act? What part do parents play in this? Society in general?
    Girlfriend dumps you? Either (A) move on and find a new one, or (B) jump off a building.
    Tenant wants to stay on another two months after the lease expires? Either (A) let them, or (B) bribe the police to evict them, or (C) take a knife and cut some children before killing yourself.
    Don’t like your job or company culture? Either (A) quit and go work somewhere else, or (B) jump off a building.
    Got scammed? Either (A) try to get legal recourse, or (B) scam somebody in return, or (C) walk away and try again, or (D) set yourself on fire.
    I know what I would choose, and I think I would make those choices because of how I was raised by my parents, educated by school and society, and because I’m not mentally ill (I Hope).
    Could it be that there’s something in the water (there definitely was something in the milk) like wholesale lead-poisoning that is sending people over the edge?

    • bai ren

      Hey, a french god of social science Bourdiue came up with the concept of habitus. habitus is a self generating structure for people to understand experiance.
      when you have an experiance it impacts your understanding of how things should work. You bring that understanding to your future experiances and confirmations make knowledge more fundemental to expectation and contraditions a place to refind understanding.
      Anyone interested? would love to talk about how Quine’s theories on epistimology in the two fundemental dogmas of empricism are fundemental to this model.

      But yea differnt Jay, my habitus hasnt made me someone likely to go out and kill either. the question is what does? lets not dehumanize lets not mystify, lets find solutions 五毛 apiece

    • Democracy is just a means to an end, at least in relation to this particular social ill. Deranged farmers with meat cleavers might be dissuaded/kept from carving up kindergartners if (a) the justice system is seen to be fair and effective, (b) common people have legal and protected methods of protest, (c) the mental health system is effective, (d) social stigma involved in getting help for mental health problems is lessened. Shouldn’t all these things be available in a harmonious society in any case?

      If an authoritarian government can accomplish these goals, fine. But what are the odds on (a) or (b) ever coming about from such an exclusive, paranoid oligarchy?

  4. Yes, how could China’s glorious Proletarian Dictatorship have possibly inspired anyone to murder the innocent for political reasons?

  5. bai ren

    Attacking a kindergarden is a taboo act. Are policy makers responsible for understanding what might cause individuals to inniate such extremely violent taboos? Do we call on the government to find policy measures to handle with the reconciliation and healing afterwards? A truly harmonizing experiance ;)

    While I agree that the
    “[S]chool attacks occur because people in China are forbidden any real outlet to express opinions, vote for change, or vent frustrations” quote is a little extreme, it does represent a body of arguement which should be adressed. it should especially be addressed by folkes like bloggers as it is based upon citizen action and civil society.

    Could it be that helplessness for a lack of outlets in current social ideology and practices in China led so many to enact upon such a taboo?

    My humble solution is to fund psycologists and community consiler services 五毛for every such incident. Thats the modern scientific way

  6. MacLean

    When a government abrogates responsibility for everything good unto itself, is it any surprise that fingers get pointed back at it when things go wrong?

    While the big brother case can be overstated in the extreme, the Leadership can’t expect to have their cake and eat it too. Many foreign media outlets find more ‘evidence’ to back their claims, while Chinese are exploring with genuine anguish what the causes might be.

    I think the fact that people are so quick to blame the structures of the government reflects their own personal struggles and concerns, and they’re letting that play out in their narrative interpretation.

  7. pug_ster

    Good post. I think the major problem with the Chinese government is the lack of social programs to deal with depressed, suicidal or mentally unstable people. I know there here in the US, there are many underpaid social workers who works with families who are down on their luck. There are suicide hotline where the government helps out people with issues. To me, these kind of programs doesn’t seem to exist in China.

  8. Quick comment on the U.S. vs. China comparison. I was more interested in drawing attention to the fact that the same sort of blame game occurs in the U.S. We engage in the same sort of finger pointing that is going on here at the moment, we just are pointing at different things. I think that part of the analogy holds quite well.

    In retrospect, however, my last paragraph is slightly misleading. I do agree of course that the underlying facts, and probably causes, of school violence in the U.S. and China are different.

    That last statement was made a bit out of frustration over the knee-jerk reaction of some — in this case Scott Simon — who seemingly attribute everything that goes wrong over here to the monolithic authoritarian government, which is a figment of the imagination.

  9. lolz

    I still see the school attacks as exceptions rather than anything anyone can make generalizations on. The general crime rates on things like larceny, assaults, and murder are much better indicators of say, effects of the widening income gap, and what needs to be done by the government through policies.

    The people who hack up children regardless of the pressures they get from the society are insane. Sane people may get revenge on people who have offended them or kill themselves, but they don’t kill innocent kids who are not related to their sufferings. Other than arguing that China should have a better system to address the mentally challenged I don’t think people can make any other sound decisions based on a recent string of extreme reactions committed by insane people.

    • I would always caution against generalizing from anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, this is a pretty striking “disease cluster” (if that language is appropriate).

      One of the more compelling arguments I’ve heard recently is that although there may not be any single “cause,” the copycat factor is pushing a tiny fraction of wackos over the edge. Without that, it’s difficult to explain how these attacks are so bunched together.

    • That’s right, in Guangdong. The fun never ends with this topic.

      BTW, I have a follow-on piece on the school violence blame game that I wrote for China Hearsay. It will go live tomorrow morning China time on that site.

  10. Goodness

    “After being treated unfairly or being bul­lied by the author­i­ties, and unable to take revenge on those gov­ern­ment depart­ments that are safe­guarded by state secu­rity forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker peo­ple,” said the edi­to­r­ial by a writer named Shi Chuan.

    What’s that old story? Something about 90% of all bullies were bullied themselves? It seems like conflict resolution in China can best be summed up as shit rolls down hill. Live with it.

  11. yangrouchuan

    Why are these guys only going after kids instead of the elderly or homeless if they are looking for someone weaker to take their frustrations out on?

    How many of these attackers have kids? Doesn’t sound like any of them even have a wife. They all live alone, have crap jobs and see no way out of their situation. They are likely the “bare branches” lashing out due to knowing they will never have of one of most fundamental needs of all people, companionship and family. To add insult is their dead end carrier, run ins with corrupt officials, possibly poor health, etc.

    Various levels of government share the blame but this may be the very first visible crack in a very unbalanced Chinese society, especially with regards to the gender imbalance and all of the predicted consequences.

  12. Stan, I think your school shootings (US vs PRC) is well-taken. Although some have made good points here on the difference in motivations between student and adult perpetrators, I think the general point is correct: heinous individual crime sprees should rarely be connected to gov’t policy (especially as a primary cause).

    I mean, certainly the government in most countries has a major, if not controlling, influence over the shape of society, but modern societies — irregardless of their shape — also share similar traits. One of these is sick criminal acts form time to time. It’s probably come combination of economic frustration, close proximity to other people, cultural frustration, or psychological illness.

    But to blame the CCP and its authoritarian gov’t primarily would require showing that other, more liberal gov’ts are free of such crime. Enter your example of school shootings. Thus, you can’t put primary blame on the gov’t.

    But since people here have problems with school shootings as a comparison, let me suggest some other American pastimes: frustrated employee shootings (post offices, gas stations, etc.), parents killing their young children, home-grown terrorism (i.e, Oklahoma bombing), the list goes on …

    How many people reading this blame the US gov’t economic or criminal policies for these specific occurrences? Probably not many. If anything, easy access to firearms might be to blame for the ease of killing in some instances. But this only blames gov’t policy for the mode of killing (of which their are many), not the motivation.

    If you want to look to the state as a primary party of blame, then social movements are the place to look. In this sense, stories of significant social dissent are legitimately connected to CCP policies.

    But social movements involve, by definition, groups of people — not disparate instances of fucked up copy cat killers.

    • Quick caveat: I do think economic inequality can raise a sense of injustice that leads to some to take murdering innocents as recourse. But usually these people have psychological imbalances or there is a culture of violence that gets mixed up with the sense of injustice.

      So at the same time, economic inequality can’t explain it all.

    • Zuo Ai

      no disrespect intended, but when did “irregardless” become a real word? Firefox isn’t even giving me a red underline

      • Haha. A couple years ago, my grandpa berated me on this usage, too. It’s a colloquialism I picked up as a kid — don’t remember from whom — and ever since, I’ve had the hardest time kicking it! Oh well, conventions be damned. You get the point, anyway.

    • Jones

      My blaming of government only goes as far as their response to this. Obviously you can’t just blame this on any one thing. Mental instability, criminal insanity, etc need to be looked in on and taken much more seriously. There needs to be a level of effort to face mental health in China. Funding for research, ad campaigns, stuff like that.

      If they offer no progress on this sort of thing and just throw out some one-line explanation about “Oh, he was just mad cause his girl left him”, then eventually the fault will lie on their shoulders to some extent. They know this is bullshit. Maybe it had something to do with it, but it was just the trigger. We’ve all had money and relationship problems before. Only a couple of us have ever violently assaulted kindergartens before.

      Not saying that Beijing can easily prevent it from happening, but they have a duty to address and educate (themselves and others) about mental health issues. Drawing another similarity between US school shootings and Chinese school hackings…there was a focus on “what to watch for” in identifying a potential threat. There were measures taught in the event of an attack (get in the classroom, lock the doors, stay away from the windows, etc). Police were called and responded promptly. If their answer is “let’s just put a LMG team overlooking the gate”, then that’s awesome aesthetically, but a bit disappointing.

      • Good points all around, Jones. Issuing a constructive response and subsequent prevention policies seems both prudent and useful.

      • Teacher in C

        Dead on, Jones. 100% agreed.
        I work at a school in Beijing that seems like a prime target since it’s in a wealthy area. They’ve had up to 6 guards (mixture of police and security guards) watching every morning and afternoon when the kiddies are coming and going. Today they built a police shack near the entrance. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous every time I walk into school and every time I hear someone shouting during the day…

        • Jones

          I think I mentioned this before, but I taught at a private kindergarten that was located actually in a poorer area. The gate was always open, and the school itself was a very open area with flimsy doors and very breakable glass (kid threw a rock through it once). People would just walk in and look through the windows from time to time. We once had an actual crazy man walk in off the street and onto the lot. After his initial interest in staring and talking to me in unintelligible gibberish (I guess the local dialect), he then picked up a kid’s backpack. Guard just laughed, until the man took off for the gate with it. It was funny then, but now I think about that same situation and how scary it’d have been had it happened today.

  13. Excellent post. I think it should be informed with Mark Ames fantastic discussion of production pressures in an authoritarian context in _Going Postal_. The school shootings in the US occur because of the atmosphere of the schools — bullying and pressure — which guarantees that someone sooner or later will crack. He has a good discussion of the meaninglessness of “profiles” of would-be shooters, instead pointing out that it is institutions, not people, that need profiling.

    The lesson I would take away here is that Scott Simon is actually right — authoritarianism in both cases is the root cause of the lashing out. In the US in the shooting cases it was remarkable how often the victims were non-bullies or beloved caring teachers — sorta like kindergartners, themselves victim of authority, not perps. Thus the China killings show that same pattern of killing the victims… postalism with Chinese characteristics.

  14. maotai

    Let’s change the sentence slightly;

    “attacks like the Beltway sniper and the IRS plane crash occur because people in the US are forbidden any real outlet to express opinions, vote for change, or vent frustrations.”

    Stan is right … too convenient.

  15. J. Zhang

    I can understand that there may be biases at play in the editorials of Western journalists.

    One thought I would add, though, is that since the CCP exercises such a level of control over the levers of government and society, it should rightly share more of the blame when things go wrong.

  16. Chris

    I think this is about economics. In order to say why though, I have to begin “far from the point” but trust me I have every intention of getting to it.

    Everyone knows that if you want to be an absolutely ruthless capitalist, China is the place to be right now. And everyone also knows that the Chinese government’s economic policies are every ruthless capitalist’s dream come true. If you’re a capitalist in China, the communists are your best friends. People like Pusan Playa (below) don’t seem to understand that the cold war is over in that sense. Enough of these throw-back references to the repressive, Soviet-style “dictatorship of the proletariat.” That’s over-with. It’s what has replaced it (and, for me, the fact that what has replaced it is every bit as violent only in different way) that’s important for us to be discussing now.

    In fact, I think China is a case-study in just how well authoritarianism and capitalism can work together. All of the old authoritarian channels, the ones that were once used to redistribute the surplus (by force) are now being used to extract it, again, by force.

    I think that this rash of violence does have something to do with the Chinese government and with government policy but in a restricted sense. I think these murders respond to a kind of violence that is internal to these policies, that is carried out by them, but only insofar as these policies feed into a larger, higher order set of phenomena.

    The Chinese government is first and foremost an economic entity. I think this is more or less self-evident to Chinese people. Government policy most deeply effects their lives at an economic level and they know that. Then comes all the old-school, vaguely repressive social policies and the psuedo-communist, now essentially nationalist propaganda, but only as a kind of after-thought.

    What is real for poor people in China is (big surprise!) their poverty and the fact that there is no end to it in sight, especially if the Chinese government has anything to do with it! And they do have something to do with it. Quite a lot actually. It’s no mystery to Chinese people. When all the government officals and their mistresses roll up in Land Rovers and brand new BMWs to be present at the opening of the new shopping mall that put 200 people out in the streets, people make the connections!!!!

    Most of the social ills that you and the people responding to your post are listing as possible causes have their roots in poverty, an economic phenomenon with social consequences not vice-versa. What is on the mind of a poor, middle-aged man when he decides to kill somebody? The fact that he can’t pay for food, that he hasn’t bathed in 6 months, that he has nowhere to sleep, that his old-neighborhood is gone and that nobody seems to give a shit about it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about government policy, or economics, when he goes after a bunch of kinder-gardeners with a meat-cleaver for those things to be considered the motive force behind his actions. They are causes nonetheless. And neither does his target have to make any sense with respect to the things he’s responding to with his actions either. Systematic violence, the kind of violence you get in capitalism, has no face. Often the response to abstract, anonymous, depersonalized forms of violence is equally abstract and depersonalized.

    In other words, I don’t think this is about failing his gaokao, or feeling too much pressure to get married… that’s what suicide is for. He went after and deliberately betrayed a series of social relationships… in a very concrete way with a knife. And even though I recognize that those kindergartners are pretty far removed from the causes of his grievances, it’s significant to me that he broke what is, for most of us, the core social bond: he killed innocent people. He did it, he killed other people and not himself, because he felt deeply betrayed on some level by OTHER people. I would hold that capitalism organizes (and in some cases institutionalizes) the betrayal of the exact same core social bonds, only on a slightly longer time scale and at a slightly more abstract level. It takes people’s lives away from them one hour at a time, and in doing so it does a kind of violence to them, since no amount of money will ever buy back that time or the good health and all the energy they spent wasting it on someone else’s watch. Sometimes it takes people’s entire lives away from them all at once, and what’s worse perhaps than a guy with a meat-cleaver, it leaves them alive to deal with it.

    There is no direct or satisfactory way to respond to systematic violence. He did, quite literally, what he could. It was a horrible act and I condemn it. We shouldn’t be surprised by these kinds of things given the economic climate in China right now and the complete lack (in China) of a forum or a political body through which these tensions could escape or be dealt with. If anything it will get worse.

    Expecting the Chinese government to do something to administer to these social ills with more than a band-aid, would require that they come to terms with their role in causing them from the perspective of their super-charged participation in the free market, which is the very source of their livelihood at the moment. Not likely.

  17. King Tubby

    Chris. A really great post. We are talking about buccaneer capitalism….no rules, just be party connected, but dont end up on the slaughter list. I other words, don’t get too big for your boots…Gome

    A few years ago, the party distributed a set of dvds to senior members….study session, be there or be square ….examining the collapse of the USSR…Gorby and that really dangerous commodity pisspot Yeltsin.
    (But did he make a great speech on the last day of Dec 1999…..leaves Kennedy in the dust. )

    At the mo, Beijing is again busy examining the Thai situation for lessons to be learnt re: retaining power in spite of the great wealth divide.

    No epidemiologist would say we have a disease cluster in terms of frenzied attacks yet, but the cluster is forming, and it is a form of social suicide by the perpetrators.

    Give it another year.

    Meanwhile CS, Mop and Tianya etc will be registering more really negatitive than positive stories …a sure sign that all is not well with the psyche of great majority in the Middle Kingdom.

    Back to the past ….major civil disorder, superstition and cults.

  18. King Tubby

    Another. This time group grievance resolution which apparently is not reported internationally by the CD.

    Not yet a cluster, but a definite trend.

Continuing the Discussion