Fifth Attack on Children Raises Questions About Chinese Society

Commentators search for explanations in the country's rapid transformation

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Wednesday, China suffered its fifth attack on schoolchildren since March. All of these incidents, as The New York Times notes, involved "middle-aged men using knives, cleavers or tools." As the Atlantic Wire covered in April, observers have been searching for the cause of this horrifying and perplexing trend. Possible explanations include economic factors, mental illness, copycat effects, school vulnerability, and social instability.

But in the past week, many writers have begun to come to a consensus: whatever the other factors, these attacks point to serious problems in Chinese society. The country, some experts argue, is ill-equipped to deal with the stress of social transformation, particularly because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and therapy. A survey of their arguments:

  • Similarities in the Cases  "The assaults have all been carried out by middle-aged men who acted alone, and at least three of the attackers had known mental health problems," points out Time's Austin Ramzy from Beijing. "The number of attacks in such close succession suggests that some of the assailants may have been copycats." Still, experts point out that "lack of access to mental health care" may also be a factor, along with "shortcomings in China's legal system, in which disgruntled parties often have little recourse when they clash with local officials." The man who made his attack with a hammer, for example, had been "told that a house he built for his son with his life savings would have to be demolished because it was illegally constructed on farmland."
  • Understanding Chinese Social Tensions  The hammer-attacker's case was not unique. "Large-scale and, in many cases, forced urbanization is carried out through migration, land seizure and residential relocation in both rural and urban areas," explains sociologist Xueguang Zhou in The New York Times. "Alarming social inequality has become a naked fact that individuals experience in everyday life. In particular, housing prices have skyrocketed in large cities, increasing three or four times in as many years, creating a profound divide between those haves and those have-nots." Meanwhile, "the traditional social fabric of family-based social support and neighborhood mutual assistance cannot cope with the rise in social dislocation, social closure and the marginalization of certain groups," and " the school attacks are likely to be eruptions from these growing tensions." The Chinese government has reacted to the problems by trying to "'contain' symptoms" rather than "cultivating mechanisms to diffuse them."
  • How Those Social Tensions Work Out on the Individual Level  Meanwhile, social scientist C. Cindy Fan analyzes the situation of the man behind the March 23 stabbing. "In the U.S., an average doctor can own a house and live a comfortable life. Zheng, on the other hand, slept in the living room in an apartment he shared with his 80 year-old mother and his brother's family of three." He was "a weak contender in the marriage market" because of his inability to afford his own apartment. Fan argues that the various assaults, "all ... committed by middle-aged men acting alone," don't necessarily "tell us something about Chinese society that we do not already know."
We know that in China the gap between the rich and poor is wide, cities are densely populated, living outside the societal norm (e.g., staying single, divorced) is stressful, the pressure for men to be successful is especially high, and mental illness (and many other physical illnesses) is very much a stigma.
  • Other Evidence of Disruption  Barnard professor Guobin Yang, also at The New York Times, looks at the rise in mass protests, violence against government authorities, and self-immolation as a form of protest. "The common thread is the crisis of authority, law and governance,"  he says," but these attacks are in some ways still more disturbing: "Community often serves as a buffer in times of crisis (as in times of war). By turning against their own community, these attackers reveal a deep crisis in that community, which has long been a source of stability in Chinese society."
  • 'Something Is Very Rotten in China,' declares The Telegraph's Malcolm Moore. "Life on the margins of Chinese society has always been unfair and difficult, but it is near impossible to imagine the rage that must have driven these men to slit the throats of young children."
  • Mental Health Incompetence Particularly Dangerous in Changing Society, argues Christina Larson at Foreign Policy. For a long time, "mental health was in essence treated as catchall category for activities considered socially deviant in China (until 2001, homosexuality was included on the government's official list of mental illnesses)." Treatment is still rare, individuals tending instead towards secrecy. "This is a terrible and looming problem for a country experiencing such profound changes, which strain interpersonal bonds and individual psyche."
  • From Within China, Concern  "Han Han, one of the country's most popular bloggers (and a huge irritant to the authorities), wrote that killing the weak was seen by the attackers as the most effective way of exacting revenge on a society 'that has no way out,'" reports The Economist, while "even the official press has aired the odd hint of dissent. A newspaper in the central province of Henan said that while the West had many NGOs that could help people suffering from mental distress, in China there were very few. This, it said, led to problems becoming bottled up and eventually erupting in violence." Meanwhile, China Daily columnist Huang Hung at The Daily Beast worries over continued stigma surrounding mental illness and is unsettled by how "little" the government has done "to help the country heal," instead preferring to paper over the incidents.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.