China soul searching after kindergarten massacres

BEIJING, China — Not so long ago, it was popular in China to point at school shootings in the United States as evidence of major problems in American society.

These days, after spate of horrifying mass murders at primary schools across this country, China is doing some soul-searching of its own into what leads to random school killings.

Voicing an ever-common sentiment in China, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the recent outbreak of deadly school violence is indicative of underlying social problems.

“Apart from taking immediate action to increase security at schools across the country, we need to pay attention to the deeper motives that lead directly to these problems,” Wen reportedly told Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV in a Friday interview.

“That includes handling a number of points of social tension, resolving disputes and strengthening conciliatory measures at the roots of our society,” Wen said.

After five mass attacks on schoolchildren in different parts of the country since March, Wen has finally voiced what many Chinese have been talking about in private and public: The mass killings might be more about societal problems than random madmen.

More aggressive Chinese media has been making this point for a couple of weeks, but it was not until the murders of six children and two adults by a cleaver-wielding man at a kindergarten in Shaanxi province earlier this week that a top government leader addressed what might be at the root of the rage killings.

The murders have shared a few common factors: all involved middle-aged men reportedly angry about their own personal circumstances. In each case, the schools were simply staging grounds; the children victims unrelated to the cause or the murderer.

At first, government-run media was quick to write off the killings as committed by mentally ill men, with no greater meaning. It’s now clear that something else is going on.

Pi Yijun, criminal psychology professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said China’s ever-growing wealth gap has created a volatile situation in which the people living at the poorer end of the spectrum feel disenfranchised and helpless.

Mass incidents — what the government calls demonstrations, protests and other disruptions — are on the rise each year. Pi said there were 90,000 such incidents across the country in 2008.

“The disparities in wealth lead to problems like poverty or joblessness and the accumulated complaints boil over into outbreaks, not just individual cases,” Pi said.

Yet there are still questions about whether the knife attacks actually are unusual, or statistically very meaningful. With a population of 1.3 billion, China’s overall murder rate remains relatively low.

In addition, as the Chinese government has loosened controls on parts of its domestic media, reporting on incidents such as the school murders is now possible, where it may have been censored in years past. In other words, it’s impossible to tell by looking at open historical data just how unusual these killings are.

Still, there is no question that Chinese parents and others are living with a heightened sense of fear.

“I don’t think anything will happen in Beijing, but I’m still nervous to send her to school,” said Lu Liyang, the mother of a 6-year-old kindergartner in the Chinese capital.

Whatever happens next, China has joined the unhappy ranks of countries grappling with widespread, random school violence.

Pi said the children were likely chosen as targets because kids are so important to Chinese families, particularly in the age of the one-child policy.

“If they kill a child, they can destroy a big family behind the child,” Pi said. “They think it is a very good way to express their anger.”