Why the Rash of Attacks on School Children in China?

The third attack in as many days spurs speculation about security, society, and economic instability

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One week, three ghoulishly similar back-to-back attacks on Chinese schoolchildren: first a knife-wielding former teacher wounded 15 children; then an unemployed 47-year-old man stabbed 28 children and killed 4, and finally a 45-year-old man beat 5 kindergartners with a hammer before lighting himself on fire. These three attacks follow on two similar incidents within the last month, spurring frantic debate within China about their causes. Why this rash of awful copycat crimes?

  • Economic Factors, or Mental Illness to Blame? Evan Osnos of the New Yorker gives the best explanation of the incidents so far. He says the incidents have generated particular fear because of China's one-child policy. He surveys local Chinese newspapers, citing one that blames rising economic strain in China. (All three men appear to have been unemployed.) Other publications assert it's simply mental illness to blame. Yet Osnos says, "even if mental illness is the root cause here rather than economic factors, mental illness is not getting enough discussion either." He concludes that the attacks reflect, if nothing else, "how disorienting Chinese life can be in 2010."
  • Media Attention Driving Copycat Crimes? Austin Ramzy of Time reports on a Chinese professor of sociology who says, "There's definitely a factor of imitation in terms of the crime method...The more crimes they commit in a short period of time, the more media attention they will get, and attention is exactly what they want." Ramzy also notes that earlier attacks had already compelled a greater focus on school safety in China, but that "the recent spate of attacks shows the difficulty in protecting schoolchildren."
  • Deeper Social Problems? Sky Canaves of the Wall Street Journal looks at debates within China about whether the incidents reveal deeper social problems. Canaves finds an editorial that criticizes the obsession with improving safety. "If society is less troubled, we will be safer, and children will also be safer." The writer also cites a Chinese poll revealing that many citizens believed that if local governments focused on improving ordinary people's lives, "no one would commit murder."
  • Schools Vulnerable? Key from China Hush reports on efforts to bolster security in primary schools, showing equipment that teachers and guards could use to disable aggressors: "In response to the recent frequent campus murders, many schools have began the work of strengthening school security. On April 29, many middle school, primary school and kindergartens in Beijing are to equip with nearly 200 police steel forks, to be used against the attackers." Visit the page for photos of the steel forks.
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