China's Soul Searching As School Killings Continue

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Wu Tianchang / Xinhua

Anxious parents and relatives wait at a hospital in China's Shaanxi province on May 12, 2010, after seven children were killed in a knife attack at a kindergarten in Hanzhong City

A surge of attacks against children in China has continued in recent days despite official pledges of stepped-up security. The violence has prompted questions about the state of mental health care in China, highlighted shortcomings in the country's legal system and left the government struggling to find some way to stop the bloodshed.

On Wednesday morning, seven children and two adults were "hacked to death" and at least 20 people were injured in an attack in the central Shaanxi province, the state-run Xinhua news service reported. The assailant, a 48-year-old man who owned the house where the privately run kindergarten was located, killed himself after the attack, Wu Xiaoyan, an official in Nanzheng county, told TIME.

The assault is the sixth in a series of attacks on schoolchildren that has left at least 17 dead and dozens injured in the past eight weeks. The first, and deadliest, came on March 23, when a 42-year-old physician used a knife to kill eight students and wound five others as they waited outside the Nanping Experimental School in southeastern Fujian province. The assailant, Zheng Minsheng, said during his speedy trial that he was enraged after being spurned by a woman he was pursuing romantically. Domestic media reports suggested he had a history of mental illness. He was executed just over a month later, on April 28, the same day that 33-year-old Chen Kangbing stabbed 15 students and a teacher at a school in Guangdong province in southeast China. Chen had been a teacher at another school but went on disability leave in 2006 for mental health problems, according to state media. That was followed by an April 29 attack in Jiangsu province and another on April 30 in Shandong in eastern China.

There are no direct links between the attacks, but the cases have similarities. The assaults have all been carried out by middle-aged men who acted alone, and at least three of the attackers had known mental health problems. The number of attacks in such close succession suggests that some of the assailants may have been copycats. "The problems have been there for many years, but the concurrence of similar attacks in a short period of time, that was largely triggered by media reporting," says Ding Xueliang, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

But lack of access to mental health care is a larger underlying factor that likely contributed to the recent violence, says Ding. A study of four Chinese provinces published in medical journal the Lancet last June found that among individuals with a diagnosable mental illness, just 5% had seen a mental health professional. Yang Jiaqin, who stabbed seven people outside a school in the southern Guangxi region on April 12, killing a second-grader and an 81-year-old woman, had been treated for mental illness twice previously. His family had decided he needed more care, but they were too late. He went on his rampage one day before he was scheduled to visit a hospital for further treatment.

The attacks have also pointed to shortcomings in China's legal system, in which disgruntled parties often have little recourse when they clash with local officials. Some of the assailants spoke of personal grievances that may have prompted their bloody outbursts. Wang Yonglai, a 45-year-old farmer who crashed down a school gate with a motorcycle, attacked five children with a hammer and then set himself ablaze on April 30 was believed to have been infuriated by a dispute with local officials. Wang was told that a house he built for his son with his life savings would have to be demolished because it was illegally constructed on farmland, Xinhua reported.

China's petition system, which allows citizens who feel they are being mistreated by local officials to file a complaint with higher authorities, is antiquated and inefficient. One study found that just 2 out of every 1,000 petitions achieves any sort of results. To slow the flood of violent outbursts, the government should work to alleviate abuses in the legal system, says Ma Ai, a sociology professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. "In the long run, it boils down to building a society where everyone is treated justly by law," says Ma.

In the short run, China faces some practical concerns about how to improve school safety. Part of the reason schools have been attacked is that they make easy targets for a deranged assailant hoping to inflict as much harm as possible. "They hope that people will pay attention to their misfortunes when they bring about pain and horror in society," says Ma. In China, where private firearms are banned, attackers are limited to using simpler weapons like knives. That helps explain the grim logic as to why the recent attacks were aimed at schools. They are a soft target, where an assailant armed only with a knife can still inflict great harm. "It's the most effective way to achieve popular shock," says Ding.

China's government says it is making school safety a priority. Last week leading public security official Zhou Yongkang said it was a "major political task" to protect students. Official teams have been sent to monitor safety preparations, and thousands of new guards have been added. Beijing alone has added 2,000 security guards since March to defend the capital's kindergartens and elementary schools, the Beijing News reported on Wednesday.

But the latest attack shows just how much more China's schools have to do. In Shaanxi, the provincial education bureau told schools to "strictly enforce access controls, register all visitors, prevent all uninvited personnel from entering school campuses and reinforce management at school gates during school hours." That order came on May 1, nearly two weeks before Wednesday's bloodshed.

With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Jessie Jiang / Beijing