HONG KONG—When the school day was over, and parents were picking up their children, a 22-year-old man surnamed Xu set off a bomb by the gates of a kindergarten in China last week. The blast injured over 60 people and killed eight, including Xu.
Officials have stopped short of calling the attack an act of terrorism—though it was clear that horror and dread were on the killer’s agenda—and they are labeling it a criminal act instead.
One person who was caught in the blast told Chinese state-run media that the gates of the kindergarten were open, but none of the children had yet reached the exit when Xu detonated his explosive device. Photographs and videos of the explosion and its aftermath were circulated on Chinese social media immediately after it happened. One consolation is that the casualties did not include any of the school kids or teachers.
Police who searched Xu’s apartment found bomb-making materials, as well as the Chinese words for “death” written erratically on his walls. His motivations were unclear.
Although the use of a bomb in a school attack is an anomaly, this is the latest incident in a long string of onslaughts where children are the targets. In May, 11 kindergarten pupils were killed when the bus they were riding was set aflame in a tunnel in eastern Shandong province. The fire was started by the bus driver, who died along with the children.
Knife attacks are much more common. Ten children were stabbed by a man outside of their Hainan primary school in February in southern China; the attacker killed himself afterward. A month prior, just as students were returning to school from their winter break, 11 kindergarteners were assaulted by a knife-wielding 41-year-old after he climbed over the wall of their school in Guangxi province, also in southern China.
Those are only a few examples from this year.
Often enough, attacks on schoolchildren in China are chalked up to unstable or emotionally disturbed individuals seeking an outlet for their rage and discontent, which certainly is true as far as it goes. Indeed, it’s true for most terrorists, especially those who act alone. But what sort of pathology lies behind this? More importantly, what is being done to cure the nation of this sickness?
The official response has been to order schools to amplify on-campus surveillance and protection. Some police officers and security guards are armed with blunt bidents—two-pronged staffs that are meant to be used to press attackers into walls or the ground. (Judging by the frequency of attacks and the number of those who are injured or killed, this is not an effective measure.)
A regulation was put in place to require anyone who is purchasing a large knife to register with their national ID, although implementation is spotty at best, and would not be a deterrent even if fully enforced.
These attacks in China share a lineage.
On the morning of March 23, 2010, Zheng Minsheng arrived at a primary school in Fujian province. He brought a knife with him, and attacked the students who were standing or walking nearby. He managed to kill eight and wounded several more. Questions were abundant, but the Xinhua News Agency merely said Zheng was frustrated by “failures in his romantic life.” Zheng’s trial was swift, and he was sentenced to death. On April 28, 2010, he was executed.
The day he died, a similar attack happened in Guangdong province. Sixteen students and a teacher were wounded. None of the injuries were fatal, but the nightmare became recurrent.
The next day, 47-year-old Xu Yuyuan stabbed 31 people—28 students, two teachers, and a security guard—at a kindergarten in Jiangsu province.
Another day later, on April 30, 2010, in a village in Shandong province, a man named Wang Yonglai brought a hammer and a can of gasoline to the local school and bludgeoned students with the tool before setting himself on fire. Xinhua reported that his attack was caused again by frustration: Wang had just built a house by spending 110,000 yuan ($16,000) of his savings, but the government had issued an order for its demolition.
Three consecutive days of attacks on young kids shocked the nation, and direct lines could be drawn back to Zheng Minsheng. Think of his attack in March 2010 as the Columbine of China—not the first, but the defining episode.
These attacks on school children carry echoes of the mass shootings that take place in America: The echoes of the Sandy Hook atrocity are unmistakable.
One difference is that so many of the attackers are middle aged. Another one is that people in China do not have the same access to firearms, which can be acquired with particular ease in the United States. So any individual attack in China, while tragic, is likely to be much less devastating.
It’s the frequency of these incidents that should be a cause of major concern.
Abhorrent acts overseas—whether it is James T. Hodgkinson’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia, a white van ploughing into pedestrians on London Bridge followed by a knife-wielding rampage, or the April shooting on the Champs-Élysées in Paris—are reported in China with the same intensity and frequency as in the U.S., U.K., or France.
Are unstable men—so far, it has only been men—drawing inspiration from attacks abroad as they also reference Zheng’s horrific choice in 2010?
There is no quick answer, but the persistent injuries and deaths reflect a social pathology that plagues the nation. At the back of each parent’s mind, there is a tangible reason to think that each time they drop off their children at school, it could be the last time to see them.
So far, only one thing is clear—attacks on school kids are now the norm in China—and now is the time for students, parents, teachers, and the government to find solutions.