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.