China school attacks leave 1 dead and 33 children burned or slashed

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

A man armed with a hammer and gasoline burst into an elementary school Friday morning, attacked five children with the hammer and then set himself on fire in yet another of the mysterious attacks on Chinese schools that have terrorized parents and children around the country.

The latest attack took place in the small city of Weifang, in the eastern province of Shandong, at 7:40 a.m.

The assailant, identified as Wang Yonglai, a 45-year-old farmer, burned to death, according to the official New China News Agency. Teachers managed to rescue two children he had been holding in his arms when he set himself ablaze.

Five children, ages 5 and 6, were taken to the hospital but were reported to be in stable condition.

The attack at a Chinese elementary school was the fifth since last month and the third in the last three days. All of the assailants were middle-aged men, apparently unemployed, leading to speculation that the assaults were a form of social protest against rising income disparity in China.

So far, 10 people have died and more than 60 injured, most of them children.

An unemployed insurance salesman on Thursday slashed 28 kindergartners with a kitchen knife in Jiangsu province, critically wounding five children.

That attack took place in the eastern city of Taixing, 120 miles northwest of Shanghai. The 46-year-old assailant overpowered a security guard at the front gate of the Zhongxin Kindergarten and entered a classroom, authorities said.

“It was a terrible scene. He was waving the knife as though he was daring us to come in and stop him, but nobody would dare,” said restaurant owner Gu Xudong, 41, who ran across the street to the school when he heard screaming. He said the attack was stopped by a deliveryman who grabbed a fire extinguisher and smashed it into the assailant’s head. “That guy is the people’s hero,” Gu said.

The suspect was identified as Xu Yuyuan, out of work since 2001. No motive was disclosed.

“This man was obviously sick,” said a 28-year-old factory worker who was at the Taixing People’s Hospital, where most of the victims were being treated. “But our society is very complicated. The economy has changed so quickly. It is hard to know where you are.”

Hundreds gathered at the hospital, as well as outside the locked gates of the school, some of them friends and family, others just curious. Everywhere, raucous debates could be overheard about what had happened and the assailant’s possible motive.

One woman at the hospital, accompanying the mother of a victim, said the school catered to privileged children. “The kids all come from families with money,” said the woman, who gave only her family name, Ji.

The first and deadliest of the recent attacks, in which eight children were killed, also took place at an elementary school said to cater to children from well-to-do families. The assailant in that case, Zheng Minsheng, a community health worker who had been laid off, reportedly said in court that he had been upset because he had been jilted by a woman from a wealthy family. He was sentenced to death and executed Wednesday in Fujian province.

The publication Legal Daily in a story this month raised the issue of social inequality leading to violence and cited an online survey in which 64% of respondents attributed Zheng’s actions to “the widening gap between rich and poor in China.”

“Will there be another Zheng Minsheng?” the writer queried.

On April 12, a 40-year-old man used a meat cleaver to attack students and bystanders outside an elementary school in the southern province of Guangxi. An elderly woman and a second-grader were killed. On Wednesday, a man with a knife stabbed 18 children and a teacher in Leizhou city in the southern province of Guangdong. China has strict gun-control laws, so most attacks with weapons tend to involve knives or, occasionally, homemade explosives.

“This is like domestic terrorism,” said Ni Jianping, director of research at the Shanghai Institute of American Studies. “In China, because of the one-child policy, the child is the dearest thing to society, so these people are trying to make as big a shock to society as possible.”

In late 2004, there was another cluster of knife rampages at elementary schools, and similar attacks have taken place in the past, but these received little or no news coverage. The latest incidents garnered perfunctory mentions in the Chinese news media, which used reports by the official New China News Agency that were devoid of lurid details that might be expected if such attacks took place in the United States.

Only on a few blogs were there photographs showing small children, most appearing to be about 4 years old, with blood-spattered bandages around their faces.

Hao Bin, a Beijing-based psychiatrist, said it was preferable that the attacks did not get much publicity.

“From my professional point of view, we should reduce the impact of such suffering. If there is overexposure, it might scare people more,” Hao said. He discounted the theory that social inequity played a role in the stabbings. “These cases don’t have anything to do with politics, the gap between rich and poor. When a person is psychologically ill in this way, he might do something to hurt people — just maybe if he is rich, he would do it differently.”

Times staff writer Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Hilgers from Taixing. Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.