What Explains the Recent Wave of Violence in China?

After beatings, knifings, and a bombing, people are questioning whether inequality and corruption have played a role in the attacks.

Outside the intensive care unit where a 2-year-old victim was treated before her death on July 25 (Weibo)

At 8:50 pm on July 23 in Beijing, a woman was pushing a stroller on her way home. Her daughter was asleep. She stopped at a bus station to organize some of her things when, according to several witnesses interviewed by the Beijing Times, two men in a car asked the woman to move and let them park the car there. She refused. A quarrel erupted. A man dressed in gray jumped out of the car and rushed up to the woman. He pulled the woman's hair and slapped her across the face. Mr. Zhou, a witness, described the scene:

After the man in gray had beaten the woman for one minute, another man dressed in pink exited the vehicle and began hitting the woman as well. At that moment, the man in gray walked over to the stroller. He scooped up the girl, lifted her above his head and threw her fiercely to the ground.

It was all over in three minutes, after which the two men fled. The sleeping girl was silent throughout the whole process. She died at 11:00 pm on July 25, after two days in the hospital.

On July 24, the police arrested Han Lei, the man in gray who threw the girl to her death. Another man, surnamed Li, turned himself in on July 25. The Beijing News revealed that Han Lei had been convicted of stealing a car and sentenced to life in prison in 1996. His sentence was commuted five times for good behavior in jail, and he was released early. The man surnamed Li had been convicted of theft and sentenced to over 10 years in prison; he had been released in late 2012.

After the girl's death was confirmed, many Chinese posted symbols of candles on Sina Weibo. One user posted two candles, saying "One is for the girl, dashed to death, the other is for our dying humanity."

Anger and curses were even more widespread. A writer named Xia He wrote: "Only by killing the man can public anger be quelled." For some people, the death penalty was not enough. User @fuji家的cc argued: "Executing [Han Lei] by shooting is too good for him. Please kill him by ling chi [an ancient method of execution by dismemberment, such as cutting the flesh or removing the limbs]."

The 2-year-old girl's murder was not the only violent incident to make headlines in July.

On July 25, in Henan province, a man named Ding Jinhua killed three people of the same family after his mother argued with them that morning. He then fled to another village to kill a woman, his business competitor. He also killed a driver and took his car. Three other people were injured.

On July 23, in Guangxi province, a man rushed into the Population and Family Planning Bureau, whose duty it is to enforce the One-child Policy; he killed two officials and injured four others. His family claimed he was mentally ill. Information from the local Propaganda Department revealed that the man had been involved in a dispute with the bureau because it refused to register the birth of his fourth daughter.

On July 22, in Beijing, a 50-year old man killed a woman and injured four people with a knife, including a two-year-old boy, in a shopping mall. A preliminary investigation revealed that the man had a mental illness.

On July 20, a 34-year-old man named Ji Zhongxing ignited a homemade bomb in the Beijing Capital Airport, injuring himself. He claimed that years ago he had been beaten and paralyzed by security guards in Dongguan City, a prosperous city in Guangdong Province. Ji's father said Ji often shouted that he wanted to go to Dongguan to petition the government. Several days before he attempted his suicide bombing, Ji had been writing complaint letters to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, a central government division that deals with petitioners.

The senseless murder of a 2-year-old girl has given those following the news even further cause to seek the roots of this violence.

Yu Minhong, the founder and CEO of New Oriental Education and Technology Group wrote:

Chinese society is full of atrocities. We can't simply conclude that it was the villains that perpetrated these things. They must be punished, but we also need to find the roots of the evil. When justice is unobtainable, when the normal channels to resolve problems do not exist, when officials protect each other and ordinary citizens do not have the same opportunities, when dignity is taken away and trampled, society will turn good guys into bad guys.

The post was forwarded over 163,000 times, and applauded in many of the 35,000 comments it attracted.

Yu Jianrong, a professor famous for his research on China's politics and the country's rural areas, analyzed the situation as well, concluding that society was becoming increasingly vicious. He gave two reasons: the unequal distribution of benefits, and the invalidation of rules. He expounded upon the latter: "The invalidation of rules creates more problems [than the unequal distribution of benefits]. To what extent will we backslide if the rules are ineffective? We may regress to the state of the jungle, where violence rules and prevails. Violence is a gene suppressed by the evolution of rules. Thus, if rules fail, the violence gene will reemerge...The transition to viciousness is the most explicit sign that rules are becoming ineffective."

Professor Yu also linked the government's policy of stability maintenance, which demands the preservation of social stability at all costs, with this societal trend: "The biggest problem of stability maintenance is that the authorities deal with some legal issues in a political way, which has been undermining rule of law in recent years. Rule of man replaces rule of law. Then, rule of law is replaced by violence. This is the breakdown of societal order."

Arguing that people turn to violence when they have exhausted legal channels, some people showed sympathy for the perpetrators of violence. Such views were especially evident in the case of the failed suicide bomber, Ji Zhongxing.

Although the authorities in Dongguan City continue to deny beating Ji to complete paralysis, the public by and large does not believe them. Media coverage of Ji's poor and miserable life has drawn widespread public sympathy. Ji had petitioned three times and brought a lawsuit to obtain compensation, but his claim was dismissed by the courts due to "lack of evidence." After being pressured to do so by higher authorities, the Dongguan government offered him 100,000 RMB (about $16,310) based on "humanitarian considerations" -- and on the condition that he cease petitioning for justice. Yet Ji never obtained what he sought: an admission of guilt by the Dongguan authorities and RMB 330,000 in damages. He continued to petition, but the authorities ignored his appeals after offering him the smaller sum of money.

A Party official in Ji's hometown named Gao Jincheng has stated his belief that Dongguan authorities' inaction caused Ji to become desperate. He set off his homemade bomb in the airport only after trying for years to obtain justice through legal channels, and even earned the admiration of many by warning passers-by that he was about to set off a bomb.

Zhao Xiao, a college professor, posted on Weibo: "Ji Zhongxing warned away the crowd for ten minutes before the explosion, thus he only hurt himself. What a kind person! Who can stand out and declare that he or she is kinder to Ji?" The post was shared over 53, 000 times.

Sympathy for Ji has raised concern that his attempted bombing may inspire similar violence. A comment published by the Beijing Youth Daily held that we can sympathize with Ji, but we cannot romanticize him: "Warning people to stay away and minimizing the bad consequences of his actions does not turn him into the incarnation of justice. His behavior and motives constitute a suspected unlawful practice. Sympathizing with him is only a form of encouragement."

Sun Xuyang, a journalist who wrote a full-length report about Ji's experience, believes that this argument is fundamentally flawed. Sun says that those who feel compassion toward Ji can criticize those opponents for "suppressing the demands of those at the lowest levels of society" while those critical of Ji can denounce sympathizers as "inciting violence at the lowest levels of society."

Sun concluded with wry advice, suggesting that to figure out whether Ji will inspire imitators, "Ask seasoned petitioners whether the media's criticism of Ji would put an end to their recurring desire to seek justice in such a risky way."

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.