China's Alarming Spate of School Knifings

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Alexander F. Yuan / AP

A police officer crosses the police line to enter a building where students were attacked at the Zhongxin Kindergarten in Taixing, in east China's Jiangsu Province, Thursday, April 29, 2010.

Updated, April 30, 3.20am ET

China is reeling from the fifth attack on schoolchildren in just over a month. The violence, which has left 10 dead and dozens injured, has prompted questions about school safety. The attackers have all been adults, and at least one was known to have suffered from mental illness, prompting concerns about the state of treatment in China. Experts say the most recent attacks were inspired by a deadly assault last month, heightening fears of further copycat attacks.

On Thursday a man entered a kindergarten in eastern Jiangsu province and stabbed 28 children, two teachers and a security guard. Two children are in serious condition, according to a statement issued by the Taizhou city government. The suspected attacker, an unemployed 47-year-old man named Xu Yuyuan, has been arrested. The next morning a 45-year-old farmer used a motorcycle to break down the gates of a school in eastern Shandong province, the state-run Xinhua news service reported. He hit several students with a hammer, then grabbed two and lit himself on fire. The farmer died, and five students were injured.

On Wednesday another man attacked a primary school in southeastern Guangdong province. Chen Kangbing, 33, slashed 15 students and a teacher before he was surrounded by teachers and then arrested by police. State media reported that Chen was a teacher at another school in the area, but had been on sick leave since 2006.

On the afternoon of April 12 a man in the southern Guangxi region used a vegetable knife to attack several students and bystanders near a schoolhouse. Yang Jiaqin, 40, stabbed seven people, killing a second-grade student and an 81-year-old woman. Yang had been treated for mental illness in 2005 and 2008, and family members were preparing to send him to a hospital for further treatment when he launched his attack, according to the Beihai city government.

The news of the attacks came amid the rapid trial and sentencing of Zheng Minsheng, a 42-year-old surgeon, who was executed on Wednesday for a bloody assault on an elementary school last month in Fujian province. In the space of a few minutes on the morning of March 23, Zheng stabbed to death eight students and seriously injured five others who were waiting to enter the Nanping Experimental Elementary School. The Nanping Intermediate Court, in a statement announcing Zheng's death sentence, said he acted out of anger because he had been repeatedly frustrated in his romantic life.

"There's definitely a factor of imitation in terms of the crime method," says Ma Ai, a professor of sociology at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. "Zheng Minsheng was the first in this batch of cases, and it seems that our society's attention has done little but incite similar crimes. The more crimes they commit in a short period of time, the more media attention they will get, and attention is exactly what they want." The attackers "all tend to blame others for their own misfortunes," says Ma, and through their violent acts, they hoped to bring attention to their own personal problems.

The series of assaults, all in relatively well-off regions along China's coast, has raised questions in the Chinese press and online about violence in China. Violent crime is less common here than in the U.S., and strict controls on gun ownership mean school shootings are unheard of. But in recent years China has seen several knife attacks on schools, including one particularly violent stretch in the second half of 2004. In August of that year, a guard at a Beijing kindergarten stabbed 15 students and three teachers, killing one student. A month later a man stabbed 28 children at a nursery in the city of Suzhou, and another attacked 24 at a school in Shandong province. In October a primary school teacher in Hunan province hacked to death four students and injured 16 more, and in November a man broke into a high school dormitory and stabbed to death eight boys.

Those attacks led to an increased focus on school safety. And while many schools in China's more developed coastal regions have unarmed guards, the recent spate of attacks shows the difficulty in protecting schoolchildren. "In the short term, schools should take more precautionary actions," says Ma. "And those who display similar psychological problems should receive more communication and counseling." With reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing