What Can We Learn from China's College Murders?

The country's educators ought to pay more attention to the mental health of university students.


Students take their examination in an exam hall in Dongguan University of Technology, in south China's Guangdong province.(China Daily/Reuters)

On April 16, 2013, while the attention of the world and the U.S. media was gripped by the Boston Marathon bombings, Chinese news outlets and social media were captured by horrors of another kind: Huang Yang, a medical science graduate student at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, was poisoned to death, and the prime suspect is his roommate.

Bad news travels in pairs. Almost on the same day, one undergraduate at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics was killed by his roommate, and in a dorm room of Nanchang Hangkong University, a decayed corpse was found hidden.

These heinous crimes revived collective memories of the bygone tragedies on Chinese university campuses. In 1994, Zhu Ling, a highly-accomplished sophomore majoring in physical chemistry at Tsinghua University, was poisoned with thallium, a highly toxic substance. Thanks to diagnoses made through the nascent Internet, the antidote was delivered in time to keep Zhu alive, but her life was destroyed by permanent paralysis and amentia. Zhu's roommate was the only named suspect in the case, but despite a 19-year long investigation, this case still remains unresolved and has gone cold . Thallium poisoning cases happened again in 1997 and 2007 in Peking University and China University of Mining and Technology, and the victims and the perpetrators were also classmates living under the same roof

Poison is not the only way that college students harm each other. In 2004, Ma Jiajue, a promising scholarship student at Yunnan University from a poor family, hammered four classmates to death in cold blood .

Receiving an elite university education is still believed to be the main channel to ascend the social ladder in China, and university students at their primes are generally viewed as the future of the country, so the cruelty and callousness of the crimes committed by students at elite universities against each other bring a particular chill to the Chinese society.

Murders on campus always generate public soul-searching about the moral and ethical dimensions of education in China amid its breakneck speed economic growth. China is one of a few countries with compulsory courses on morality and ethics in its K-12 education. However, such courses are heavy on overgeneralized and politically-charged concepts, but light on practical guidance for educators and students navigating the sea change of social values since China's market-oriented reform started in 1979. In today's China pragmatists are often rewarded more than idealists; bystanders more than good Samaritans; and nepotism more than entrepreneurship. The highbrow doctrines in the textbook on morality, which students are made to memorize for exams, become ever more irrelevant to the day-to-day life.

Once the state-sponsored education fails to instill moral righteousness in its students, the absence of a robust civil society and an over-arching belief system leaves a rupture in students' moral education, and for some students, moral standard becomes blurry and arbitrary. Even family teachings, the anchor of a traditional moral education in China, have also been weakened by the side effect of the one-child policy. The only child in the family is more likely to be spoiled by the parents, and hence, less likely to learn about sharing, compassion and commitment.

For decades, China has promoted the so-called "quality education," which advocates a holistic approach to promote students' intellectual and physical development. However, because of its large population and limited resources, most still view getting a good education as a cutthroat competition in which cold hard test scores remain the top priority. The emotional intelligence and mental health of students have long been neglected.

To this day, many Chinese people still ascribe to ancient wisdoms that boast the value of education in materialistic terms -- "a house of gold and plenty of beauties can be found in a book," so the saying goes. When education becomes a survival game, the sheer happiness in the pursuit of knowledge is compromised by cold calculations and insidious backstabbing. China's educators need to work out a plan to monitor and improve the psychological well-being of their young charges, before another shocking crime on campus takes its toll on Chinese society and families.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.