Seventeen children have been murdered in their schools in China over the past two months. Nearly 100 have been wounded. The deadliest attack occurred just this week, when a man with a kitchen cleaver ran into a kindergarten in Hanzhong and hacked seven children to death, along with their teacher and her mother. He left another 18 children wounded before returning home and killing himself.
You have to be careful about seeing a pattern in what may be isolated incidents. But even though China has greatly reinforced security at schools across the country, a number of Chinese seem eager to blame a government that could not keep tainted infant formula off grocery shelves, or explain why at least 5,000 children died when so many poorly built schools collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
The death of any child is impossible for a parent to bear. But imagine the loss of a child in a place in which most families are forbidden to have more than one child.
Despite the threat of repression and censorship, some Chinese are speaking out. Shi Chuan, an editorial writer for the Dahe Bao newspaper, posted a fierce column that contended school attacks occur because people in China are forbidden any real outlet to express opinions, vote for change, or vent frustrations.
"After being treated unfairly or being bullied by the authorities," he wrote, "and unable to take revenge on those government departments that are safeguarded by state security forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker people."
I would be wary of anyone using that logic to explain any of our U.S. school shootings, so I am skeptical about assigning it to school killings in China. But I have never been a citizen of a country that so absolutely suppresses its own citizens. In the U.S., people blame school massacres on pop culture, lax gun laws, negligent parents, violent games, or bloodthirsty music. In China, everything traces back to the government.
Maybe more significantly, the newspaper criticized the government’s attempts to censor news of the school attacks, which has nevertheless spread around China. "It is undeniable that the media’s coverage on these incidents of bloodshed may ‘inspire’ potential killers," the editorial said. "But it will educate more people by raising awareness of self-protection and spur the authorities."
China has exploded over the past generation. Millions of people have been uprooted, raised up, and smacked down. A British medical journal estimates that more than 173 million Chinese suffer some kind of mental illness. Only 9 percent receive any kind of counseling or therapy. Millions more go to astrologers, and consider mental illness a western weakness.
I don’t want to confuse acts of murder with cries for help. But no matter how rich China gets, millions of Chinese can only feel trapped in a vast, brutal machine. And when children start dying, some people will want to break it down.