What's behind the rash of Chinese school stabbings?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 18 2010 11:42 AM

China Under Pressure

What's behind the rash of Chinese school stabbings?

Last week, a tree merchant in a village in central China went on a killing spree at the local kindergarten, hacking seven children, a teacher, and a grandmother to death with a cleaver and injuring another 11 kids. He then returned home and committed suicide. The incident was the latest in a string of vicious knife attacks on Chinese schoolchildren. The first attack took place in March, and at least four more have followed, despite the government's efforts to increase security by posting armed police and security guards outfitted with large steel forks at schools around the country.

Attacks on children are horrifying anywhere in the world, but in China they are especially devastating because of the country's one-child policy. Reeling from the copycat assaults, Chinese citizens have been debating the motives behind the bloodshed.

People have proposed numerous theories: Citizens are angry at the government and corruption but feel powerless to affect change; despite China's economic growth, the divide between the rich and the poor is widening; mental illness is an unacknowledged problem; the media coverage is inspiring copycats; financial pressures like the housing bubble and employment crunch for recent college graduates make it difficult even for middle-class Chinese people to get ahead.

Advertisement

Living in China for the past two years, I've noticed how conflict-averse many people are in their personal lives and at work. But it wasn't until I saw a fight in an airport a few months ago that I started to think of China as a place where minor conflicts can escalate into violence. While I was waiting for a flight in Chengdu, a major city in western China, I suddenly heard angry voices. People from check-in counters several rows away started running toward the commotion, the way that kids do when a fight breaks out in the school cafeteria. I heard a loud smack. A second later, a high-pitched wail pierced the room. It turned out that a woman had accidentally rolled her luggage cart over a man's injured foot. An argument had ensued, and in retribution, the man had hit her in the face. (Heated shouting matches between strangers are surprisingly common here: I've witnessed them at the supermarket, on the subway, following a car accident on a highway—though most end without punches flying.)

A random occurrence of airport rage doesn't explain the wave of atrocious crimes against children, but it does illustrate how people in China tend to take matters into their own hands rather than rely on the police or the judicial system. Cops and judges may be corrupt, the thinking goes, and anyway, what's the point of investing a lot of time and energy in a case that might not conclude in your favor? Better to take care of the problem quickly—and fend for yourself. After car accidents, for instance, drivers usually sort things out between themselves, figuring out how much money one owes the other and exchanging cash more or less on the spot. Most conflicts are settled peacefully in this way, but occasionally things get violent, and then an "eye for an eye" philosophy prevails.

A year and a half ago, a friend in Beijing, Amani Wang  , e-mailed me late one evening to say that she had to rush to Sichuan province for a family emergency. When she returned, she told me what happened. Her father, a retired schoolteacher, had been driving with her mother on a dark road in a rural area when he accidentally struck and killed a man. A passer-by who knew the dead man phoned the victim's family, and the victim's brother and son quickly arrived at the scene, along with several other people. They proceeded to beat and kick Amani's father right there on the street, yelling "Beat him to death!" and "A life for a life!"

By the time the authorities showed up an hour later, the mob had stopped beating Amani's father, but not before breaking his leg. The police didn't arrest anyone. Instead, they gave her parents the choice of settling the matter in court or in private. Since Amani's parents thought the legal process would involve bribing officials, they called Amani home to write a contract for a private settlement. Her family paid $15,000, and the other family agreed to leave them in peace.

As horrible as the accident and the beating were, Amani said her parents weren't surprised by what happened. They'd heard similar stories, and besides, this wasn't all that bad compared with the things they saw in the Cultural Revolution. They had grown inured to the everyday menace of violence.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.