China grapples with understanding spate of random violence


A Chinese police officer waving crowds back as dense white smoke drifted across Beijing's international airport terminal 3 after a man in a wheelchair ignited a home-made explosive device injuring himself but no others. (Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING -- A man buys a knife in a Beijing supermarket and randomly attacks customers with it, including a baby; another steals a knife from a roadside snack bar and starts attacking passersby; a third gets into an argument with a woman, picks her 2-year-old girl out of her stroller and smashes her baby to the ground, killing her.

A spate of deadly knife attacks and other apparently random acts of violence in the past few days -- many of them in the capital -- rattled the Chinese government and had many Chinese citizens wondering loudly what is becoming of their society.

Some incidents seem to have had political overtones. A disabled man in a wheelchair who detonated a homemade bomb in Beijing’s airport on July 20 was apparently protesting because he had been beaten and paralyzed by security guards many years before and his complaints had been ignored.

Another who rushed into a Family Planning Bureau in Guangxi province and killed two officials last week may have been unhappy because the office, which is in charge of enforcing China’s controversial one-child policy, had refused to register the birth of his fourth daughter, according to media reports.

And in June, a man who was reportedly unhappy with his pension set a bus on fire in the southeastern city of Xiamen, killing 47 people, including himself.

But some acts appear more random, like an incident that involved a shopkeeper in Henan province, who killed three members of the same family on Friday after his mother had argued with them that morning. He then rushed to a downtown furniture store to kill a woman who was his business competitor. He also killed a driver.

The Chinese authorities and sympathetic academics, keen as ever to play down social tensions that could potentially be traced back to their rule, have blamed most of the incidents on mental illness or even the hot weather. It is not an explanation that impressed many netizens, who have been furiously discussing the unusual outbreak of violence in the past few days and what many see as the government’s attempts to evade responsibility.

"Sunshine beats darkness," one commentator sarcastically observed on the microblogging site Sina Weibo. "I am really impressed by the 'insightful' views of the Chinese experts. Four vicious incidents in four days in Beijing, experts say it is related to the season. A retired cadre owns 21 apartments: the official explanation -- it’s not related to his position."

Economics professor Hu Xingdou at the Beijing University of Technology said the pressures of modern life, combined with China’s fraught 20th century history of violent revolution and upheaval, had eroded the bonds of trust that bound society together. "Current Chinese society is a people against people society," he said. "People in the past society experienced a long time of class struggle education. ... Now people live only for the purpose of making money."

The only solution, he said, was for the government to loosen its stranglehold on civil society and freedom of expression, as well as allowing non-governmental groups to carry out psychological counseling. "The explosion in these cases is inevitable," he said. "If people's grievances cannot be vented, more and more similar cases will happen in the future."

Ma Ai, a criminal psychiatrist from the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, cited "desperation and disappointment" with a lack of social reforms from the new government, led by President Xi Jinping. But he added that mentally ill people have long been neglected in China and that he hoped the Chinese government was beginning to acknowledge it needed to give them better care.

The public security ministry vowed last week to launch a crackdown on "extreme violence," while Beijing police said they would step up round-the-clock patrolling, with more strenuous checks on Internet cafes, karaoke bars, smaller hotels, illegal vendors and massage parlors to identify "suspicious people." But it was unclear if a security sweep would have the desired effect.

"China is undergoing a period of transformation, where all kinds of social conflicts and grievances are entwined," the Beijing Times said in an editorial on Monday, urging both the government and the Chinese people to respect the rule of law.

Gun crime is rare in China because of strict controls on firearms, but high-profile knife attacks appear to be rising. In 2010, a series of four copycat knife attacks struck schools in less than two months, killing 15 children and injuring 80 others, prompting an even more intense period of national soul-searching.

Today, citizens need to register their identity cards in order to purchase a knives in supermarkets, although that provision seems to have had little impact in containing crime. The killer who rampaged through the Carrefour supermarket in Beijing last week took the time to patiently record his name before embarking on his deadly spree, media reports said.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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