In the deadliest of the rampages that have terrorized China’s schools, a middle-aged man on Wednesday hacked to death seven children and two adults with a meat cleaver at a preschool in Shaanxi province before going home and killing himself.
The attacker was identified as 48-year-old Wu Huanming, who owned the building that housed the Linchang Village school, 100 miles from Xian, according to the state-run New China News Agency.
Wu burst into the school about 8 a.m. as the children were arriving. Out of a class of about 20 children, all but three were killed or injured. He also killed the school’s administrator and the administrator’s mother.
The killings deepened the despair in China over the seemingly unstoppable string of attacks on schools. Since March 23, when an unemployed doctor stabbed to death eight children in Nanping, Fujian province, children in small towns around the country have been stabbed, hacked and bludgeoned, with each new incident apparently inspiring others.
“The atmosphere is very bad these days. People are really terrified,” said a doctor who gave her name as Yu from the Shankou Village Medical Clinic, near the school that was attacked.
Police and school officials seem to be powerless to stop the violence. A week before the latest attack, the county where the preschool is located held a major conference on improving school security.
“It is mission impossible to prevent these attacks in the short term. More and more people have been inspired to copy what the others have done and [it] is very difficult to stop them,” said Liu Shanying, a political scientist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
In large cities, police and paramilitary have been assigned to patrol schools at opening and closing times and closed-circuit cameras have been installed in some locations. Guards have been trained to use batons and pipes against knife-wielding assailants.
Large knives and cleavers are found in nearly every Chinese kitchen. Experts say that because the assailants haven’t gotten hold of guns, strictly controlled in China, they have tended to go after victims who are the most vulnerable.
The attacks have all involved children younger than 10, with the assailants all middle-aged men.
“When you look at school attacks in the United States, it is usually about social isolation or pressure at school, but these are men in their 40s, who feel they didn’t enjoy the fruits of economic development and have passed the golden period where they can improve their lives,” said Liu.
Some analysts have suggested that the attacks are an extreme form of social protest in a country where demonstrations are forbidden and grievances are handled through an archaic system in which the aggrieved write up petitions to party officials. A Chinese farmer in Shandong province who bludgeoned five children with a hammer before immolating himself April 30 flew into a rage after being informed that a house he built with his life savings would be demolished because it was built on farmland. Two other assailants had lost jobs.
A poll published last month in the respected Legal Daily found that 64% of respondents believed this type of behavior was a product of widening social inequity in China.
The attacks are also adding fresh fodder to the debate about media freedom. Authorities have avoided publicizing the attacks, citing the fear of copycat killers. Some coverage has appeared only on the New China News Agency’s English-language wire. Some Chinese journalists have complained that they have been banned from visiting the towns where attacks took place, conducting interviews, publishing editorials or using any content not prepared by the news agency.
In a moving commentary, Zeng Pengyu, the executive editor of the cultural pages of the Beijing Youth Daily, suggested that the absence of Chinese reporting might in fact be perpetuating the cycle of violence.
“Once the wheel of tragedy is set in motion, it is difficult to stop it from moving,” Zeng wrote in a commentary that has appeared in online forums. “Clearly, the murder of these children was despicable, but people should at least know how those responsible became so cruel. Why were all these people males, around 40 years of age with low levels of education and incomes? Why would they take such extreme measures to seek revenge on society?”
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.