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.

China's frayed social safety net may also be an underlying cause. Though the Chinese government instituted substantial reforms for health care and pensions, these reforms have been fragmented and often implemented unevenly in urban and rural areas. Furthermore, China's elderly population is growing rapidly. With scant pensions available for the elderly, this puts additional pressure on the middle-aged sons and daughters to provide for both their own families and their aging parents. These financial pressures may have proven too much to handle for many of the assailants, who found themselves middle-aged, unemployed, and no longer able to provide for their families. The fifth attacker, however, earned a moderate income and owned the local school, which casts some doubt on this explanation.

Many are labeling the attacks "social revenge" cases, in which the assailants' inability to cope with societal pressures, associated with rapid modernization and mounting inequality between the rich and the poor, drove them to take their revenge on society. For example, the fourth attacker (who bludgeoned students with a hammer before setting himself on fire) had recently found out that his house--which he had spent his life savings to build--was going to be demolished by the government.

As Cheng Li, senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, explains, "It takes five decades or even a century for countries to experience problems with urbanization, relocation, and industrialization. But for China, all of those problems occurred in such a condensed period of time. That may cause people to react in a strong fashion and it could be a serious challenge for the government."

Professor Xu Xin, director of the China and Asia Pacific Studies program at Cornell University, adds, "The traditional governmental mechanisms in place to deal with people's grievances are outdated. New measures need to be put in place."

Whether the attacks are an effect of the copycat phenomenon or larger social dynamics at work in China, it may not only be premature but impossible to draw sweeping conclusions, let alone policy prescriptions--especially since we are looking at this through American eyes.

But, U.S. onlookers following the wave of school attacks in China may gain insight from the series of school shootings in the U.S. that occurred in 1999 (after Columbine) and in 2006 (in CO, WI, and PA). After those attacks, pundits also questioned what was wrong with our society and probed what social tensions in the U.S. might have pushed attackers over the edge. But even now, the precise motives behind these episodes of violence remain elusive. As FBI Special Agent Mary O'Toole told NPR following the 2006 shootings, "We'll find the reason, but it will still never make sense."