China’s lone wolves: the attacks targeting children outside schools

Monday the 3rd of September a new school year started in China. With that, a sad trend sparkled in recent years, occurred once more.

At 8 am, while the children were running towards the gates of a school in Enshi city in the Hubei Province, a 40-year-old man named Yu, killed eight students and wounded two others. The details of the attack had been posted online in the early morning by the Enshi Police on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter). Subsequently, the message has been removed leaving the statement from the Enshi Government the only official coverage of the news. The attacker has been released a few months ago, after serving an eight-year sentence for attempted murder – according to a report published and then taken down by Chinese media he had stabbed his former girlfriend 40 times.

The attack is not an isolated tragedy. But, due to the secrecy exercised by the Chinese government on the issue, it is difficult to establish the extent of the matter.

The beginning of the trend is usually identified with the attack in 2010 at an elementary school in Nanping, in the Fujian province, where eight children lost their life. Zheng Minsheng, the 41-year-old man responsible for the killings, has been sentenced to death and executed a month later. A few hours after the execution of the sentence, Cheng Kangbing (33-year-old), a teacher on sick leave due to mental illness, wounded sixteen students in a primary school in Leizhou City (Guandong Province). After that, a series of copycat crimes sparked all over China. In only two years, at least 25 people died and 110 were injured in similar attacks.

Despite the severe punishments – all the attackers have been sentenced to death -, such crimes have continued. Big cities are no exceptions. In June, Huang Yichuan, a 29-year-old man who had just moved to Shanghai one month before, decided to attack children attending the Shanghai World Foreign Language Primary School. As he told the authorities, he couldn’t find any job and was extremely unhappy with his life. Thus, he decided to take it out on somebody else and, after careful planning – the man took pictures of schools in Shanghai and Guangzhou -, he committed his crime. A similar story is the one of Jia, a 49-year-old migrant worker from Heilongjiang province, who wounded twenty pupils at a Beijing primary school in January. According to his colleagues, he was angry because the school wouldn’t renew his contract as a maintenance worker.

As of today, it is impossible to know how many children have lost their lives or how many attacks have taken place. This is a consequence of the already mentioned secrecy of the Chinese Government on the issue and the tight censorship, as well as by the nature of the attacks themselves. They have been carried out in a huge variety of ways, by using knives, pitchforks, hammers, axes or cars – guns are not included in the list most likely because firearm control policies are tight in China, making it almost impossible to have mass-shootings. However, there are some common traits between the attackers who decide to kill the children. Usually, they are men in their 30s or 40s, unemployed or with a precarious working situation and mentally unstable.

Mental health is a rising issue difficult to tackle in China because of the social stigma related to cultural beliefs of a certain status and personal reputation. According to an epidemiological survey conducted in four provinces and published on BMJ in 2019, the prevalence of mental disorders among adults was 17.5%. In addition, the recognition rate is far below the average, as well as the average of people receiving treatment for serious mental disorders (150 people per 100 000 people in need). Moreover, even those who seek help can’t always find it. The treatments are usually expensive and people without public insurance or unable to pay for a private one are left out and they fall on the shoulders of families and relatives. Unprepared and sometimes ashamed for the condition of the patient, the family often ends up leaving the patient alone, aggravating his or her situation with isolation. Again, the Chinese government secrecy and scarcity of data make it hard to establish how many mentally ill Chinese are out there and not being treated. However, not all the school attackers were officially recognized as mentally unstable and it would be a long shot connecting the attacks only to the precarious mental condition of an unstable man.

Another common element between these attackers is the choice of killing children. In China, killing children is not only wicked for ethical reasons, but it is also a ‘threat to social security’, as it has already been defined back in 2010 by the government. In fact, for many people, children are an investment for the future. It is not only for the sake of the child that the parents want him or her to get the best education, study abroad, be top of the class, enter a good university and then find a top job. The return of the investment is collected when the parents age and, as it is typical for Chinese families, they move in with the son (or daughter). Thus, killing a child means literally destroying a family both for sentimental and financial reasons.

This story is just one of the many telling us that it is very difficult to know what is exactly going on in China. These lone wolves could be the expression of discontent among low qualified social classes which are seeing the society changing radically and fast in front of their eyes and feel left out. However, the tight censorship and the lack of data make it very hard to understand the extension of these phenomena, leaving us uncertain and ignorant of what is happening in the country where 18% of the world population lives.