China Under Pressure

What’s behind the rash of Chinese school stabbings?

Last week, a tree merchant in a village in central China went on a killing spree at the local kindergarten, hacking seven children, a teacher, and a grandmother to death with a cleaver and injuring another 11 kids. He then returned home and committed suicide. The incident was the latest in a string of vicious knife attacks on Chinese schoolchildren. The first attack took place in March, and at least four more have followed, despite the government’s efforts to increase security by posting armed police and security guards outfitted with large steel forks at schools around the country.

Attacks on children are horrifying anywhere in the world, but in China they are especially devastating because of the country’s one-child policy. Reeling from the copycat assaults, Chinese citizens have been debating the motives behind the bloodshed.

People have proposed numerous theories: Citizens are angry at the government and corruption but feel powerless to affect change; despite China’s economic growth, the divide between the rich and the poor is widening; mental illness is an unacknowledged problem; the media coverage is inspiring copycats; financial pressures like the housing bubble and employment crunch for recent college graduates make it difficult even for middle-class Chinese people to get ahead.

Living in China for the past two years, I’ve noticed how conflict-averse many people are in their personal lives and at work. But it wasn’t until I saw a fight in an airport a few months ago that I started to think of China as a place where minor conflicts can escalate into violence. While I was waiting for a flight in Chengdu, a major city in western China, I suddenly heard angry voices. People from check-in counters several rows away started running toward the commotion, the way that kids do when a fight breaks out in the school cafeteria. I heard a loud smack. A second later, a high-pitched wail pierced the room. It turned out that a woman had accidentally rolled her luggage cart over a man’s injured foot. An argument had ensued, and in retribution, the man had hit her in the face. (Heated shouting matches between strangers are surprisingly common here: I’ve witnessed them at the supermarket, on the subway, following a car accident on a highway—though most end without punches flying.)

A random occurrence of airport rage doesn’t explain the wave of atrocious crimes against children, but it does illustrate how people in China tend to take matters into their own hands rather than rely on the police or the judicial system. Cops and judges may be corrupt, the thinking goes, and anyway, what’s the point of investing a lot of time and energy in a case that might not conclude in your favor? Better to take care of the problem quickly—and fend for yourself. After car accidents, for instance, drivers usually sort things out between themselves, figuring out how much money one owes the other and exchanging cash more or less on the spot. Most conflicts are settled peacefully in this way, but occasionally things get violent, and then an “eye for an eye” philosophy prevails.

A year and a half ago, a friend in Beijing, Amani Wang  , e-mailed me late one evening to say that she had to rush to Sichuan province for a family emergency. When she returned, she told me what happened. Her father, a retired schoolteacher, had been driving with her mother on a dark road in a rural area when he accidentally struck and killed a man. A passer-by who knew the dead man phoned the victim’s family, and the victim’s brother and son quickly arrived at the scene, along with several other people. They proceeded to beat and kick Amani’s father right there on the street, yelling “Beat him to death!” and “A life for a life!”

By the time the authorities showed up an hour later, the mob had stopped beating Amani’s father, but not before breaking his leg. The police didn’t arrest anyone. Instead, they gave her parents the choice of settling the matter in court or in private. Since Amani’s parents thought the legal process would involve bribing officials, they called Amani home to write a contract for a private settlement. Her family paid $15,000, and the other family agreed to leave them in peace.

As horrible as the accident and the beating were, Amani said her parents weren’t surprised by what happened. They’d heard similar stories, and besides, this wasn’t all that bad compared with the things they saw in the Cultural Revolution. They had grown inured to the everyday menace of violence.

Even lesser disputes can lead to violence. My friend Wan Jia, a railway engineer, recently clashed with the workmen he hired to renovate his apartment. The contractor demanded an extra $1,000, and when Wan Jia refused to pay, he sent hired thugs to Wan Jia’s office to intimidate him and follow him around. Wan Jia finally called the police.

But the police didn’t care to get involved. They brought Wan Jia and the crew of thugs to the police station and left them alone in a room. “They said, ‘It’s your problem; deal with it yourself,’ ” Wan Jia told me. “As long as no one gets hurt too bad, the police don’t care.”

With no one to rely on but himself, Wan Jia called his wife and told a white lie about needing to take a last-minute business trip. He dug his heels in and stayed in the room for the next 26 hours. His opponents worked in shifts; at one point, Wan Jia found himself facing off against 10 men. But in the end, the contractor’s general manager agreed to negotiate a new price—and Wan Jia was able to go home.

Wan Jia believes the people behind the school attacks are furious, and he can understand why. These days, everyone in China feels a lot of pressure from work, from their families, from themselves to get ahead, he said. People are forced to face problems by themselves, without help from the police or the government. In Wan Jia’s view, the attackers are just the mentally disturbed few who reach a breaking point.

When school shootings take place in the United States, Americans tend to focus on the killers’ psychological problems, trying to find what is aberrant about those particular individuals. When talking about the recent school killings, many people in China point to cracks that run through the foundation of their society. They believe that the stresses that have driven several people to raise knives to children in the last two months are typical of the frustrations of life in China.

“People feel that society is unjust, and when they are treated unfairly, they have no one to go to,” Amani told me when we discussed the school stabbings. “Most people swallow it and swallow it and swallow it, until they can’t anymore.”

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