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Why Does China Have So Many School Stabbings?

Knife or axe-attacks on children are distressingly common.

A vigil at the site of a June 2018 knife attack that left two children dead (AFP/Getty Images)

Americans have gotten uncomfortably familiar with the periodic tragedy of the mass shooting; in China, it’s the stabbing spree.

Last Friday, a 39-year-old knife-wielding woman burst into the playground of a kindergarten in Chongqing, southwest China, managing to slash 14 children as they were finishing their morning exercises, before she was wrestled to the ground by shocked onlookers. The following day, the United States suffered its worst anti-Semitic attack in history when a man shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 and wounding six others.

The consecutive attacks recall a similarly grisly coincidence from 2012, in which 20 students were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on the same day as 22 children were stabbed at an elementary school in southern Guangxi. Six years ago, the parallel was shocking enough to spark a debate (in China, at least) on the merits of its gun-control laws in preventing attacks from becoming massacres.

This time, though, there has been little such reflection—in both countries, perhaps, the frequency and severity of such attacks has numbed the conversation. Police have since charged the Chongqing woman with intent to commit homicide; she will now vanish into detention, likely re-emerging only to plead guilty, before taking her motives to jail or the firing squad. “Let us pray for these injured children,” read the Chongqing police’s statement, “and hope they can get better soon and forget the nightmare.”

It’s a sentiment both familiar—“thoughts and prayers”—and frustrating for anyone hoping their leaders would take action to prevent such attacks, rather than issuing routine platitudes. But “forgetting the nightmare” (or, ideally, pretending it never happened) is one of the few coping mechanisms available to those living in an authoritarian system, especially one so brittle and restrictive it won’t acknowledge fault nor even allow relatives to mourn in public.

The instinct to suppress grievances, from street level—where stone-faced security guards seize wreaths and tributes, and forcefully move along mourners—to social media, in which reports on the hundreds of violent outbursts that happen daily are heavily monitored for political commentary, has led to an almost-willful blindness among many Chinese, particularly a middle class vested in the status quo, about the thuggishness that perpetuates it. One particularly grim video, posted in June, shows a man in the city of Datong diligently hacking away at a middle-aged woman in broad daylight, until her scalp comes away on his cleaver blade. The victim, it emerged, was a “local tyrant” (tuhao) who had ordered goons to beat her neighbor for complaining about a leaky water pipe; bribed police to ignore his injuries, including a fractured eye socket and lost testicle; then insulted him, prompting the lethal backlash. With this information, a neighborhood atrocity became an act of vengeance that many deemed worthy of sympathy or approval.

The story was not widely reported, probably because the combination of corruption, callousness, and everyday brutality was far too close to the bone: The spendthrift offspring of rich businessmen and officials are known as tuhao, a word first coined to describe the kind of petty bully who terrorized their provincial fiefdoms before the Communists came and murdered them en masse. Censorship doesn’t always prevent information about incidents from leaking completely, but it does dilute and distill it, marginalizing the outrage away from mainstream opinion. The result is that, while those who diligently read the news may deplore the yawning chasm of moral vacuity and materialism they see, the general public is too stressed to care, too anaesthetized by the Party’s unstinting calls for “positive energy” to reckon with reality until it’s too late.

School slayings do still shock and appall, if briefly, but few will likely remember that, only a month ago, a 54-year-old man drove his SUV into a crowd in Hunan, got out and started stabbing victims indiscriminately (nine dead; 46 injured), or that, in April, a disgruntled ex-student killed five children and injured 12 in another school stabbing in Shaanxi, and, in June, another man killed two primary school pupils in Shanghai with a kitchen knife. These are certainly not incidents the government wants anyone considering, because, as Zhang Jing, a witness to the Chongqing incident, told CNN, much of everyday life is already “terrifying” for many: “The vaccines are faulty, the food is faulty... and right now even the security is problematic.”

Security was supposed to have been beefed-up nationwide in response to an extraordinary wave of school attacks that took place in 2010, beginning with the murder of eight children in Nanping. The attacker was executed within a month but, just hours after the sentence was carried out, another knifeman wounded 16 students. A day later, an unemployed man stabbed 28 schoolchildren. Four more attacks occurred over the following months, leaving 27 dead and 80 injured, and seemingly confirming fears that media reports would spur a wave of copycats. In the aftermath, the Minister of Education promised to deploy more security to protect schoolyards, with one guard guaranteed per school by 2013 (a ludicrous proposal, given the poverty and lack of resources that many schools suffer; neighbors of the Chongqing kindergarten said the school didn’t even have a playground and used a local park for exercises, a decision that proved a ghastly mistake).

This policy, regardless of whether it was ever properly executed, hasn’t stopped the violence. Since 2004, there has been at least one major attack annually, including, just last year, a bomb outside a school in Xuzhou that left eight dead, and a disgruntled driver who set fire to a school bus in Weihai, killing 13. Nor has the government made any attempt to address why anyone would commit such an act targeting society’s most innocent and vulnerable. (Despite some recent progress, mental healthcare remains hopelessly antiquated for the most part, with serious sufferers often left untreated, or locked away by shamefaced families.)

State media prefers the briefest reports when delivering shock news (the graver, usually, the terser), and typically blames vague “grudges” or mental illness. The June attack in Shanghai was supposedly committed “to take revenge on society,” another commonly imputed motive that raises even more questions. The deepest analysis permitted by official news agency Xinhua allows that “rapid social change, mass migrations, increasing disparities in wealth and weakening of traditions” have left many unmoored from a sense of social justice or belonging; adrift in an arid landscape of amorality, the slightest spark—be it sudden unemployment, or the sting of an insult, or even a belief that someone is trying to mess with their feng shui—is enough to cause a conflagration.

But this psychological reasoning also lets the system off the hook. In response to the cries of protest, the state has tamped down still further on dissent, freedom of speech, and rule of law, tightening the bolts of repression until they screech. Picture the anger expressed by the average Trumpster or fuming Brexiteer—then take away their right to blog, tweet, report, demonstrate, or vote. Governments that make peaceful resolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, and for a certain unbalanced or deeply downtrodden individual, the appeal of terrorism probably carries a twisted sense of justice, giving meaning to a final act of retribution. It’s telling that, for those desperate enough to abandon rational action, yet decent enough not to wish harm, suicide is seen as the ultimate form of direct action in China.

China has always been a society in awe of might and leaders, but under Xi Jinping in particular it has become a pressure cooker. Few valves are permitted to release the rage and insecurity of the masses—a demographic that includes the middle classes who, once considered the chief beneficiaries of economic growth, have become engulfed by its many inadequacies and cruelties.

A frequent joke among China watchers refers to the state’s pervasive surveillance and security apparatus as being “Chabudwellian.” The word compounds Orwellian (which Beijing certainly aspires to be) with chabuduo, a term meaning “good enough” that summarizes the prevalent shrugging attitude toward standards, from selling expired products to securing school gates. China’s long-vaunted political and economic stability is likewise “good enough” for politicians and foreign investors, but often toxic for its citizens; harmonious enough on the outside even as, just beneath the surface, a cauldron seems to simmer and seethe.