Explaining Away the Violence: A First Look at Recent School Attacks in China

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I was at my desk yesterday morning, as usual trying to do work, read news, and keep an eye on email and Twitter all at the same time. In addition to checking out various other stories in the news, I was still trying to digest the details of a horrifying tale from Shandong Province involving the stabbing of 15 primary school students.

It was Twitter that first alerted me to yet another school attack, this one in Jiangsu Province. Another knife-wielding maniac, widespread disbelief, lots of people in shock.

Current press accounts of the latest incident, which invariably include details of Wednesday’s atrocity, are standard news reports. The folks on the China Beat for the major papers are on this story, so I won’t waste space cutting and pasting the incidentals relating to the schools, the suspects, the numbers of victims, etc.

I also plan a lengthier post on this subject over the weekend, which will run either here in China Hearsay or perhaps over on China/Divide (to be determined). In that post, I hope to not only include more specifics, but also to dig down a little bit into whether these incidents — not just the ones from the past two days, but several more that have occurred this year — reflect any underlying social causation or are merely the actions of a few nutcases.

As you might guess, the Net is full of chatter on this story and the greater trend. No one has any answers, but it is quite interesting to read the speculation, which I think can tell us a lot about public concerns.

Here are a few of the themes out there:

1. The income gap. Several of the individuals that have committed these atrocities have been either down on their luck (i.e., temporarily) or permanently poor. Moreover, some of their targets seem to have some connection with privilege. For example, the school in Jiangsu, subject of Thursday’s incident, had a reputation as a place for the children of high-level government officials.

2. Lack of control. This is related to the income gap but is an independent issue. Some people have suggested that the perpetrators of several of these crimes had suffered personal setbacks resulting from exogenous factors. A classic case might be getting laid off or your pension fund going bankrupt.

3. Mental illness. It seems fairly obvious that most, if not all, of these perpetrators had mental problems. It goes without mentioning that you would have to be crazy to stab a schoolroom full of kids. That being said, many comments I’ve seen directly challenge an explanation that mental illness is the only reason why these incidents occurred.

4. Schools and students are in need of special protection. Students are stressed out and weak (compared to adults), and they are essentially stuck in classrooms in great numbers. They are therefore fat targets; some people are suggesting that more security is needed to protect kids and schools.

5. Revenge on society. For whatever reason, these perpetrators felt the need to take out their frustrations on people they didn’t know. In China, this is a “revenge on society” act (“????” — literally “retaliation/revenge” and “society”). In discussing the underlying causes of these acts, ???? is a good framework; the facts seem to support this identification quite well.

I’ll stop here, with more later, hopefully this weekend. In the meantime, here are some links from the English press on the Wednesday and Thursday incidents:

Attacker Stabs 28 Children (New York Times)

Deadly School Attacks in China (Associated Press)

Second School Knife Attack in Two Days (Telegraph)

Man Stabs Children at Chinese Nursery School (Guardian)

School Knife Attack Suspect Undergoing Psychiatric Check (China Daily)

2 responses on “Explaining Away the Violence: A First Look at Recent School Attacks in China

  1. Tony

    Do any of these explain the cowardly move of attacking children besides mental illness? I don’t condone violence or illegal actions, but at least try to hurt adults or those that you are actually pissed off at (and not children).

    1. Stan Post author

      I wonder if there is a “shock” factor to all this. If someone is that pissed off at society, he may choose to do the most horrid, shocking thing he can (i.e. go after kindergartners).