Even lesser disputes can lead to violence. My friend Wan Jia, a railway engineer, recently clashed with the workmen he hired to renovate his apartment. The contractor demanded an extra $1,000, and when Wan Jia refused to pay, he sent hired thugs to Wan Jia's office to intimidate him and follow him around. Wan Jia finally called the police.
But the police didn't care to get involved. They brought Wan Jia and the crew of thugs to the police station and left them alone in a room. "They said, 'It's your problem; deal with it yourself,' " Wan Jia told me. "As long as no one gets hurt too bad, the police don't care."
With no one to rely on but himself, Wan Jia called his wife and told a white lie about needing to take a last-minute business trip. He dug his heels in and stayed in the room for the next 26 hours. His opponents worked in shifts; at one point, Wan Jia found himself facing off against 10 men. But in the end, the contractor's general manager agreed to negotiate a new price—and Wan Jia was able to go home.
Wan Jia believes the people behind the school attacks are furious, and he can understand why. These days, everyone in China feels a lot of pressure from work, from their families, from themselves to get ahead, he said. People are forced to face problems by themselves, without help from the police or the government. In Wan Jia's view, the attackers are just the mentally disturbed few who reach a breaking point.
When school shootings take place in the United States, Americans tend to focus on the killers' psychological problems, trying to find what is aberrant about those particular individuals. When talking about the recent school killings, many people in China point to cracks that run through the foundation of their society. They believe that the stresses that have driven several people to raise knives to children in the last two months are typical of the frustrations of life in China.
"People feel that society is unjust, and when they are treated unfairly, they have no one to go to," Amani told me when we discussed the school stabbings. "Most people swallow it and swallow it and swallow it, until they can't anymore."