Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The China Syndrome

by Lisa R. Cohen

Over the last six weeks, a spate of horrific crimes, mostly against children, have stunned the Chinese public, cast a pall over schoolrooms there, and opened the window a sliver onto the disparities between crime - and punishment - between our two cultures.

To begin with, violent crime is rare in China. Also, none of these incidents involved the American weapon of choice - a gun. Few Chinese own guns, and instead the
rampages were committed by knife- or hammer-wielding madmen.

The crime spree began on March 23rd, when eight children were stabbed to death while waiting to go inside their school in the southeastern province of Fujian. Four died immediately, four more in the hospital. They were mostly first graders. The mother above left grieved for her murdered child.

Just three weeks later, a man brandished a meat cleaver at children and bystanders outside another school, this time in southern Guangxi province. He hacked to death a student and an elderly woman, and injured five others, chasing his victims through their village before being detained by police.

Then, in the space of ONE WEEK, three more incidents seemed to turn the attacks into a sociological phenomenon. In the first, the killer entered the school itself, and stabbed an astounding 17 children, along with a teacher, as the assailant bolted from room to room. The very next day, another knife wielding attacker slashed his way past a school security guard and two teachers to injure 28 children, five of them critically.

But amazingly, that wasn't the worst of it. Less than 24 hours later, a crazed man also walked into a school, also with an 8 inch blade, evaded the elderly porter at the front door, barricaded himself inside a ground floor first grade classroom, and turned on the class of 37 students.

Only seven of the children were left unharmed. Government officials didn't report any deaths, but bystanders said otherwise, citing at least four of them. They described scenes of gore and carnage that will haunt them forever.

And finally, this past weekend, a man stabbed eight more people to death, including his mother, wife, and daughter. This one wasn't school related, but the knife wielding slasher image is all too vividly imprinted here as well.

They say that guns are so much worse than other weapons because they so neatly and easily dispatch their victims. When you lose your temper with a loaded gun in your hand, you don't have time to calm down in the split second between the pull of the trigger and the bullet leaving the chamber. But there's something about the gore of knife violence, the insanity that must be in play for someone to swing a blade around, to get that close to other humans in order to inflict your damage. Especially such young ones.

The victims' tender years are an especial affront to the Chinese public. The government's official 'one child' policy means a society where parents who lose a child...lose their whole family.

What is going on??? According to news reports out of China, including one by fellow journalist and friend Barbara Demick, the LA Times Beijing bureau chief, China's social structures are also under attack. Chinese internet forums are jammed with opinions. The assailants were an unemployed teacher, an unemployed health professional, an unemployed insurance salesman. You get the pattern. Two of the schools were known for catering to wealthy and privileged parents.

"We should think about these cases from a deeper side," read one post. "The voices of weak people were ignored, and then they took revenge on society."

Such critics posit that Chinese society has changed so fast, traditional infrastructure is collapsing, giving way to commercial free-fall. One Chinese newspaper featured an online poll citing that 64% of respondents believed the first attack, the one that started the series, was due to social inequalities - "the widening gap between rich and poor in China." In a (very expedient) trial, the assailant, Zheng Minsheng (he's the unemployed health professional), said he was angry after being jilted by a wealthier woman.

And that's another big difference between our two cultures. Zheng's trial disposed of, he was too, executed on April 28th, a little over a month after the attack took place, just a few days after the death sentence was approved by the People's Supreme Court. One month from the crime to the punishment. In this country, Mr. Zheng wouldn't have gotten much past an arraignment.

Will such swift justice deter the next in this crime wave? Maybe, but the two most recent acts of carnage occurred after Zheng was put to death, so it's doubtful. Some in China fear their culture will have to take more far reaching, global steps to curb the violence. For future generations.

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