China's School Attacks: Reaching for Answers

A series of gruesome school attacks in China has both stunned and fascinated onlookers in the West. Wednesday's assault, in which the landlord of a local kindergarten in Shaanxi Province stabbed seven students and two teachers to death and wounded several others at the school, was the fifth in two months.

The similarities among the assailants and the methods they have used are striking. Chinese officials believe that most of the attackers were mentally ill. Some were recently unemployed. And in all five cases, they used everyday objects--kitchen knives, meat cleavers, and, in one instance, a hammer--as weapons and targeted young school children.

The question everyone has struggled to answer since the violence began is, of course: Why? There are a number of explanations in play, each plausible in one way or another from a distant view; but taken together, they may tell us more about our need for an explanation than they tell us about the crimes themselves.

Although Prime Minister Wen Jiabao briefly acknowledged a link between social tensions and the attacks, for the most part, the Chinese government has been adamant in categorizing the attacks as idiosyncratic copycat crimes. The government restricted media coverage of the events, arguing that coverage of the initial attacks has inspired others to commit similar crimes. As recounted in Time, the copycat phenomenon is hardly a new one:

"The copycat theory was first conceived by a criminologist in 1912, after London newspapers' wall-to-wall coverage of the brutal crimes of Jack the Ripper in the 1800s led to a wave of copycat rapes and murders."

Criminologists, however, caution against using the copycat theory as a primary explanation for a string of violent crime. Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, explains that the copycat crime influences crime techniques rather than the motivations behind the crime. "What the media attention does is it shapes what sort of incident it is. Someone who's going to take a knife into an elementary school is probably disturbed enough that if he hadn't done that, he would have done something else," he told to Yahoo News.

Western media explanations for the attacks, by contrast, tend to focus on social tensions in China. Some commentators point to China's lack of support for mental illness as a contributing factor. According to a 2009 study on mental disorders in China, published in the medical journal The Lancet:

"Rural residents were more likely to have depressive disorders and alcohol dependence than were urban residents. Among individuals with a diagnosable mental illness, 24% were moderately or severely disabled by their illness, 8% had ever sought professional help, and 5% had ever seen a mental health professional."

Part of the reason may be the short supply of mental health professionals. In 2009, there were only 4,000 qualified psychiatrists and 15,000 doctors working in psychiatric hospitals--not nearly enough to care for the over 100 million Chinese people suffering from mental illness. Attitudes toward mental illness are also a factor in China, where the disease is seen as "shameful" or a "problem of the West," according to BusinessWeek.

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Mackie Jimbo is an editorial intern at The Atlantic and author of the blog The Unpaid Gourmet.

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