By Fatima Mohie-Eldin
On Dec. 14, 2012, Americans were saddened and shocked to learn of the horrible shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT. The events of that day were undoubtedly appalling, and were unfortunately paralleled on the other side of the world at an elementary school in the Chenpeng village located in China’s Henan province.
Although no guns were shot, about 23 children were wounded in the attack as 36-year-old Min Yongjun dashed into the Chenpeng elementary school wielding a knife and stabbing anyone within range. Investigators later found out Min’s motive, claiming he felt doomed to die and wanted to leave some impression on the world, no matter how awful, before this occurred. His response hints at serious mental illness, which might potentially hint at an isolated incident. However, Yongjun’s rampage in December was regrettably not the first time Chinese citizens had experienced a knife attack directed at school children.
Beginning in March of 2010, what would become a series of unrelated massacres began when 41-year-old knifeman Zheng Minsheng murdered eight children at a local school in his hometown Nanping of the Fujian province. Chinese authorities were quick to detain and prosecute Zheng, sentencing him death. However, the execution did little to discourage further attacks. On April 28, 2010, the same day Zheng was executed, another attack was carried out at a primary school in Leizhou, Guandong. A day later a similar attack, once again involving a knifeman, occurred at a kindergarten in Taixing, Jiangsu and was succeeded over the next year and half by several more incidents in the same style.
What explains these numerous assaults and the ubiquitous choice of brutal and blunt weapons, ranging from knives to cleavers to hammers? Some commentators have suggested that rapid social change is the cause for these killing sprees in China, but that the choice of target (i.e. schools) is merely meant to mirror the initial attack of March 2010.
China is currently industrializing at a rapid pace, never before seen in its history. To make the adjustment, forced urbanization, land seizure and relocation have become common practices of the government, but have yielded negative side effects such as social dislocation and marginalization of certain groups of people. These sudden changes give rise to social anxieties, which may escalate to serious mental illness in many individuals.
In other circumstances, these anxieties and subsequent mental illnesses may also arise from job loss and decreased social security. Chinese citizens who are unemployed, often as a result of the financial crisis of 2007-2010, feel stigmatized for being jobless in the face of their peers. This stigmatization can often yield feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness and is a social perception that must be addressed as harmful.
The government’s main response to the school attacks has mostly been to increase school security. However, in poorer provinces, this does not mean much when there is barely any money to spend on wages or weapons for security guards. Furthermore, increasing school security fails to address the central issue lying behind each of these assaults: mental illness. Although this issue seems deep-seated, the failure of the Chinese government to address the rise in mental health illnesses only worsens the problem. In addition, their failure to draft transition programs or agencies to address the hardships of social change results in more individuals susceptible to mental illness. In order to really put an end to these assaults, the government must reach out to its citizens to attend to negative social stigmas and perceptions and provide support systems for those already suffering from mental illness.
“China’s School Killings and Social Despair” at the New York Times