SINOGRAPH School attacks cut deep at China's soul By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - They are no longer rare, random acts of one or two nutcases far from
the rest of the country. A series of knife attacks in kindergartens has become
the symptom of a virus lurking deep in the soul of the new China.
Premier Wen Jiabao said as much on May 13, a day after the fifth attack and as
the death toll among children as young as three reached 16, with dozens also
wounded since the first attack two months ago. "We need to resolve the
deep-seated causes that have resulted in these problems," Wen said in an
interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television. "This includes handling
social contradictions, resolving disputes and strengthening mediation at the
According to The Global Times, a popular newspaper published
by the official People's Daily, police have foiled seven attacks at schools
since the first killings. That was at the hands of Zheng Minsheng, an
apparently deranged 42-year-old man who hacked eight children to death with a
cleaver in the coastal province of Fujian on March 23 . Zheng was convicted
and executed on April 28, the day of the second successful attack, when 16
children were stabbed in a primary school in the southern province of
Guangdong. The next day, 29 children and three teachers were wounded a
kindergarten in Taixing, Jiangsu province, by another cleaver-wielding madman.
On April 30, the wave of madness reached Shandong province. Again, a middle
aged man - this time brandishing a hammer - left five children and a teacher on
the ground, then poured gasoline on himself and set himself on fire while
holding two children. On May 12, one Wu Huangming, 48, from Hanzhong city,
Shaanxi province, stormed a private kindergarten, killing two teachers and
seven children with a kitchen cleaver - and wounding about a dozen more.
After this last episode, the government imposed a news blackout amid concerns
that the reports could encourage copycat attacks.
In a culture with a very mild sense of metaphysics, with humanlike ghosts but
few gods, children are viewed as the true link to the future and the cosmos,
and brought up to think that through them the spirit of their parents,
grandparents and ancestors continues to be embodied. In antiquity, the worst
punishment was the extermination of an entire family line and the end of all
those who had the same surname. It signified not only the physical demise of
the guilty, but also his condemnation to eternal death and to the lowest circle
Today, popular deep feelings are the same, and moreover in most families, due
to the one-child policy, an only child becomes the concentration of affections
and hopes for an entire household.
The authorities do not provide psychological profiles of the assassins. Some
Chinese commentators spoke of a lack of social safety valves - people who feel
wronged have sometimes resorted to suicide and murder. Some suspect a
conspiracy. There were 12 attacks - successful or foiled - in 50 days, an
average of one every four days, conducted by middle-aged men with crude weapons
against small children.
In other countries, similar attacks were by students taking revenge with
firearms against fellow students. The Chinese episodes are much more serious:
it takes special gall to kill at close range with a knife, and something even
more extraordinarily demonic to use the knife to bathe oneself in the blood of
Newspapers in recent weeks have reported an increase in mental disorders among
China's population, with 17% of people suffering varying degrees of clinical
depression, and an increasing number turning to the care of psychiatrists.
These numbers are probably too low if one considers the radical changes and
dramatic events in China in the past 20 years.
It is as if 200 years of Western history and development were crammed in a few
years in China and forced over a billion people to change their lifestyles
rapidly and radically. Future changes could be greater and more dramatic as the
transformation gains momentum.
Many people are searching for answers in religion. And many move from official
churches, with many practitioners and few pastors, to semi-underground house
churches where one pastor can keep a closer watch on his smaller flock, and
people feel cared about rather than abandoned.
Most Chinese intellectuals, traditionally the most sensitive part of society,
feel unhappy. Their material life has dramatically improved in the past 20
years: they live in better housing, eat better food, can afford to travel and
have greater freedom of expression. Still, many feel tormented. Some blame the
lack of democracy, others fault the nation for showing weakness
internationally, and others can't stand the new social differences.
These issues may all exist, but in all these fields there were dramatic
improvements over the past 20 years, a reason to rejoice and trust in the
future - not be unhappy. Could it be that there is also something deeper and
more personal in this unhappiness? Does it have anything to do with coping with
the dramatic earth-shattering changes of these years?
Many people simply cannot take it, and they burst. Until a month ago, these
explosions were virtually all private, but by the end of March some decided to
hit where it hurt most - at the future of China, at children who grow up in
this whirlwind changing world. It is difficult for the news blackout to
eliminate the risk of "contagion" of this madness.
Schools today are increasing security systems, the police have prepared special
units to cope with attackers, and perhaps in a short time this wave of killings
will subside. Yet the malaise in the soul of the Chinese will remain and
possibly deepen. They are making enormous strides toward a future the world
says is theirs. But apparently some of them are afraid of this future and want
to destroy it by killing children.