A spate of deadly stabbings by knife-wielding attackers at primary schools across China has sparked panic and public anger, and also raised uncomfortable questions for the government on the problem of growing social unrest.
On early Wednesday morning, seven school-children, all thought to be under the age of seven, were brutally hacked to death by an assailant armed with a kitchen-cleaver at a kindergarten in northwest Shaanxi province. Two teachers also died in the attack which left 11 children injured.
Wednesday’s attack was, remarkably, the fifth such attack on school students in the past two weeks. On April 23, eight children were killed in a primary school in Fujian province. The attacker, Zheng Minsheng, was reported to have had a history of mental illness. He was sentenced to death and executed on April 28.
The attacks, however, did not stop. On the day of Mr. Zheng’s execution, a recently laid-off teacher ran amok in southern Guangdong, slashing 18 students with a knife. None died. On April 29, another attack unfolded in Jiangsu province, leaving 28 children injured in a kindergarten. And, the following day, a man attacked a primary school in northeastern Shandong, injuring five students before fatally setting himself on fire.
This unprecedented wave of violence targeting school children has shocked a country where children are almost revered. A popular phrase in Chinese refers to children as “little emperors”, denoting how fussed over they are in a land where family planning rules limit parents in most cities to having only one child.
Since the April 30 attack, the government has tightened security in public schools, increasing police protection and strengthening security. But the measures have done little to ease anxieties.
“No matter what measure is in place, the safety of my child cannot be guaranteed,” said Ma Qiuju, a worried parent, as she waited outside the gates of her son’s school. Two armed police officers stood by the entrance, usually only manned by an elderly, unarmed security guard. A patrol vehicle, with lights flashing, stood parked at the entrance.
“But even with the police we are worried as these incidents keep happening,” Ms. Ma added. “The criminals are trying everything, climbing over the walls, attacking the security guards, using hammers to break locks. No one can be safe. They cannot protect every single school and guard every door in China.”
The attacks have stirred debate among sociologists, who say the incidents point to rising mental illness, still a social stigma often left untreated. An estimated 91 per cent of 173 million Chinese who suffer from mental problems never receive medical help, according to a study conducted in four Chinese provinces by the Lancet, a medical journal.
Other commentators say economic inequalities are another cause. In two of the attacks, the assailants are thought to have been recently laid-off workers who targeted schools in well-off neighbourhoods. A number of Chinese sociologists have also warned of a spurt of “venting incidents” spurred by inequality.
This debate has, however, been an uncomfortable one for the Chinese government.
Following the public outcry after the first attacks, the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department moved quickly to bar newspapers from discussing the issue. A circular issued last week carried instructions “from the higher authorities” to all media organisations, telling them to only use news reports from the State-run Xinhua news agency while covering the attacks.
The moves have been criticised by some newspapers. “Any effort that attempts to maintain social stability by silencing public media is outrageously wrong,” said one newspaper in an editorial. “It is undeniable that the media’s coverage on these incidents of bloodshed may inspire potential killers, but it will educate more people by raising awareness of self-protection and spur the authorities.”
Censors have also clamped down on any criticism of the government.
Han Han, China’s most widely-read blogger, last week criticised the government over the attacks. “In a society that has no release valve, killing the weakest members of society has become the only release,” he wrote. “I would advise deploying the security that is currently protecting all the local governments in the country to protect our nursery schools. A government that can’t even protect the children doesn’t need so many people to protect it.”
But within hours, the post was removed from his website.