Last Friday I wrote a preliminary post on China Hearsay about the recent spate of school violence in China and some of the broader issues that had thus far been percolating in the media and in online conversations. At that time, news of the third consecutive attack on a primary school had yet to break.
For anyone that hasn’t been following these incidents, here are some of the basic details as summarized by AFP:
[A] farmer attacked children with a hammer at a primary school in eastern China on Friday before setting himself on fire — the latest in a wave of assaults that has left eight children dead and 50 people injured.
The farmer’s rampage in Shandong province left five children and a teacher hurt but in stable condition, Xinhua said.
On Thursday, a jobless man apparently angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks slashed 29 children and three adults with a knife used to slaughter pigs in an attack at a kindergarten in the eastern city of Taixing.
On Wednesday, a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to mental problems injured 15 students and a teacher in a knife attack at a primary school in southern China’s Guangdong province.
In Friday’s post, after reading some of the online chatter, I identified five hot topics of discussion:
- China’s income gap.
- Individuals who feel like they have no control over their own lives.
- Mental illness.
- The vulnerability of schools and students.
- Revenge on society.
Since that time, I would add one item: media coverage of the violence.
Let’s tackle the last one first. Kai Pan has already written on this topic, specifically the controversy over government instructions to push coverage of the latest school attack off the front pages of China’s newspapers to make way for articles about the opening of the Shanghai Expo (and a lot of coverage of tough new school security policies).
Three explanations have been put forward:
- Minimize the possibility of future copycat crimes by limiting publicity of the incidents.
- Ensure that other important news, including the Shanghai Expo, is not overshadowed by “sensational” news coverage of violence.
- Minimize political fallout of incidents by limiting dissemination of these details to the public.
Cynics and China critics will undoubtedly latch on to the second and third explanations. These points of view are expressed in some of the comments excerpted by Kai. His own conclusion is that the government, in exerting its influence over the media to ensure adequate coverage of the Shanghai Expo, has made a reasoned trade-off that should be looked at carefully and not immediately dismissed as just another example of authoritarianism.
As one china/divide commenter has suggested, it is interesting that the government has not utilized the copycat excuse thus far, an explanation for limiting media coverage that is eminently justifiable.1 I agree, and since the government has not availed itself of this “out,” we will have to chalk up their actions to concern over Expo coverage and a desire to keep some of the more salacious details away from the public.
This is an important topic that always crops up when violent acts are committed. Anyone who would kill children must be crazy, right? Moreover, it is certainly the case that China’s mental health services are inadequate and in need of more resources, better professionals, and simply more attention devoted to problems that are facing a stressed-out population.
At his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos suggests that even if societal factors were involved in these incidents, mental illness is not getting enough attention:
As the Times points out, mental illness remains such a hushed topic in China that the British medical journal The Lancet, estimated that ninety-one per cent of the hundred and seventy-three million Chinese adults that are believed to suffer from mental problems never receive professional help.
But mental illness can only take us so far. It may be helpful in identifying individuals that may be more likely to commit a violent act, for example. However, mental illness does not explain why these particular individuals committed these acts or why they lashed out at young children, which brings us back to political and economic issues.
The Income Gap and Lack of Control
China’s rapid economic modernization has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, has created a vibrant middle class, and has made many people fabulously wealthy. In doing so, however, development has created winners and losers as well as tension between the different levels of society.
Two of the three school violence incidents last week, in addition to many others this year, involve individuals who were experiencing financial difficulties. These cases are not limited to mentally ill people who terrorize schools. I wrote last week on China Hearsay of a tragic incident in Anhui Province, where a woman who had been taken into custody following her assault on an excavator poised to demolish her home fell to her death from the police station.
Greg Anderson, who touched on the topic of school violence in a highly recommended ChinaBizGov essay that delves into the “China Model” political theory debate, sees economic tension as the root of the problem:
Lately, we have also seen a rash of school attacks in China. At the risk of reading too much into this situation, I would like to suggest that these are further symptoms of disappointment among China’s lower classes due to their powerlessness. If this were simply a matter of mental illness, as some observers have suggested, then why aren’t the mentally ill stabbing children worldwide? Why is this happening in China, and why now?
There are many different terms one can use to describe this situation, including “class resentment,” “economic dislocation,” or “lack of control.” Evan Osnos refers to this as “marginalization” and describes how China’s rapidly-changing society has led to severe disorientation:
Whatever the combination of marginalization and mental illness, these cases are a reminder of how disorienting Chinese life can be in 2010. For those already fragile, there is not much to lean on. A Xinhua story about Zheng Minsheng, who murdered eight children outside their primary school last month, described him as “a ‘loser’ without a job or a wife and already middle aged.” Perhaps the best diagnosis of this phenomenon comes from an unnamed twenty-eight-year-old factory worker that a Los Angeles Times reporter encountered at the hospital in Taixing after the attack there Thursday: “This man was obviously sick,” the worker said. “But our society is very complicated. The economy has changed so quickly. It is hard to know where you are.”
The Policy Response to ‘Revenge on Society’
Although it is somewhat enticing to chalk up horrific incidents to mental illness and bizarre one-off behavior, easy dismissal is difficult in the face of multiple iterations. Although our initial response may rightly be “What the hell is going on?” – the first sentence of Ryan McLaughlin’s Lost Laowai blog post on the school violence subject – responsible lawmakers will review these incidents for the proper government response.
The government may view these acts as one-off episodes perpetrated by deranged individuals, people lashing out at perceived societal injustice, or purposeful terrorist attacks against society (or the government). As discussed above, the “one-off” argument seems weak in the face of numerous incidents. So are these acts revenge on society, and if so, for what reason are they being carried out?
These acts have been referred to in terms of “revenge on society” (“报复社会”) since the victims of the attacks have no personal connection to the perpetrators. Moreover, primary schools/kindergartens have been described as the most defenseless part of society, making them attractive targets for people lashing out and attempting to shock the public.
Based on the lack of any political motivation, there seems to be no reason to believe that these individuals were targeting society or the government per se. With the common factor of economic distress, however, it seems that Greg Anderson’s characterization of these acts as the result of “disappointment among China’s lower classes due to their powerlessness” is a reasonable explanation.
The income gap and the problems faced by China’s lower classes is nothing new to policymakers in Beijing, and is quite a well-tread topic on China Hearsay. Indeed, the issue was foretold by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 while on his Southern Tour; in speeches that have become famous for glorifying entrepreneurship, he tempered his economic liberalization rhetoric with a warning about the income gap and class resentment.
Two current politicians that have taken Deng’s warning seriously are Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, both outspoken proponents of “rebalancing” China’s economic development, even if it means sacrificing some GDP growth. Their policies have focused on many of the problems that have been exacerbated by the income gap, many of which have been laid bare by recent violence.
The Hu/Wen administration in recent years have implemented progressive tax rules, particularly in favor of rural residents, have begun the rebuilding of China’s social insurance infrastructure, including the health care and education sectors, and have strengthened anti-corruption campaigns against not only outright bribery, but also the abuse of power that is often central to stories of residents “powerless” to remedy their economic situations (often involving property transfers).
The politics of the recent violence is difficult to pin down. On the one hand, governments always bear some responsibility for such events, even natural disasters and their aftermath (just ask George W. Bush). The fact that these individuals may have been acting out of frustration over personal financial issues brings the discussion well within the scope of economic policy.
On the other hand, the current administration has been fighting the battle over the income gap and economic discontent for several years now, pitting themselves against the “growth first” faction. To the extent that such horrific acts serve as a wake-up call to opponents of rebalancing, a more aggressive approach towards reducing the income gap may be on the way.