The social underbelly of China’s school killings

Image from China News Service

This spring has witnessed a series of horrific attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that have killed 15 and injured around 60 others. The discussion over the patterns and motives of the killings has been rampant, with Stan Abrams helpfully summarising much of the conversation here and here. One theme is undeniable: that the attacks are underscored by the growing severity of China’s complex social problems. Fundamentally, they typify the dark side of the China’s glittering economic growth: that it has not come with deeper social and political reforms that must be delivered in order to sustainably manage the country’s growing contentions.

The events appear to have been copycat incidents, with middle-aged men attacking defenceless children. The most recent occurred in Linchang, Shaanxi Province, on Wednesday, when Wu Huanming, a well-liked 48-year-old local man, slaughtered seven kindergarten pupils and two adults. It has since been found that a property dispute between Wu and the school’s administrator, Wu Hongying, triggered his deadly actions.

On the surface, the row was perhaps a trivial one: Wu Huanming had rented a house next to the kindergarten and wanted it to be vacated when the lease expired in April, while Wu Hongying wanted to stay until the summer. Yet, the details of the other attacks – a jobless man allegedly angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks who then slaughtered 29 children and three adults at a Taixing kindergarten, and a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to ‘mental problems’ who injured 15 students at a Guangdong primary school – point to a darker, more serious root of social frustrations leading to vindictive actions.

In spite of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past thirty years and created a socially mobile, urbanised middle class, a sizeable pool of disenfranchised citizens has been deepening. Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system continue to limit China’s 200 million migrant workers’ access to basic services in cities, and the urban-rural divide is ever increasing, exacerbated by poor medical service provisions in rural areas and China’s widest wealth gap for thirty years.

The debate has also rippled to a wider discussion on mental health issues in China. Talking to AP, Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaozheng said,

The perpetrators have contracted a ‘social psychological infectious disease’ that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society. (…) They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable.

The provision of adequate mental health care has long been neglected in the PRC. According to the National Centre for Mental Health, China has around 100 million mental health sufferers, with only 5% actively seeking treatment. When treatment is sought, it is largely insufficient: there are allegedly 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the PRC (the world average currently sits at 43 beds and four doctors). Fundamentally, mental health remains a social stigma, with economic growth having overshadowed any psychological changes that may have come with it, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.

This sombre melange of inequality and inadequate care has created a fertile ground for social contentions to grow. As ChinaBizGov’s Greg Anderson argues, the killings are symptomatic of the disappointment and powerlessness borne by China’s lower classes. Evan Osnos has termed this the ‘marginalisation’ suffered by those disorientated in China’s rapidly changing society.

At a policy level, such fatal contentions are beginning to chip away at the Hu-Wen trajectory of social harmony, raising questions over how such social inequalities can be tackled and what the future will hold for China’s mental health care. The government can no longer avoid dealing with such home truths. As Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown told me,

China’s more unstable than people think. Economic growth has been the great unifier, and the CCP has the objective of creating a strong, powerful country. This will continue to work in short to medium term, but beyond that, you’re hitting issues of stability, sustainability, equality and social justice. These could become killers in their own right.

It does seem as if this realisation for a more sustainable approach is taking hold. In the first public acknowledgment that Beijing is looking to the root of the problem and not merely increasing school security, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his anguish over the attacks. He told Hong Kong’s Phoenix network,

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

If there ever were a chain of events pushing a changing China closer to the crossroads of the need for deeper social reforms, it has most certainly occurred. It is only too poignant that innocent and vulnerable lives were lost in order to make the CCP realise that society is not, and cannot be, harmonious.

Google and China: open letters and new debates

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

The potentially final chapter in the Google-China saga may come this week, with the Internet giant close to following through with its threat of pulling out of China altogether. In mid-Janauary, Google announced it would stop censoring search results on google.cn, having being the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating in the PRC.

The events triggered an East-West discussion over Internet freedom, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly asserting its importance. Chinese mainstream media has, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail against what they see as an ‘information imperialist’ with intricate ties to the US government. Google was most recently asked not to ‘politcalize’ (?) the conflict, as a Xinhua commentary published on Sunday claimed:

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

This response has not been surprising: the issue of censorship is a non-negotiable for Beijing. But the saga has gone beyond reminding us of the policing of the Chinese Internet to truly illuminating how different it is from its Western counterpart: simply, Google’s moves could potentially push China closing to harbouring what we now know could be a sprawling Intranet.

This has had ramifications for Chinese web users, both apolitical and not. This weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of activists demanding clarity over the speculation of the last two months. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

As MacKinnon says, the Google-China incident has sparked some soul searching about the extent to which the Chinese government is causing China to be isolated from the rest of the world. A new debate on accountability stretching to both governments and Internet companies may also be a result of recent events.

Google’s potential departure also holds promise for China’s domestic Internet companies keen to capitalise on the situation. As TIME’s Bill Powell says,

Google’s stock price has declined from $595 to about $567, while Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has seen its stock price rise by 50%.

Michael Schuman, meanwhile, has been pondering over the connection, if there is one, between economic progress and human rights. Specifically, could “China’s stand on human rights…cause it to miss out on crucial opportunities necessary for its future growth”? He concludes,

the real test of China’s political and social policies will come as it attempts to shift from an economy that makes cheap stuff to one that innovates and invents advanced products and technologies. Only then will we find out if the government’s control of information and personal freedoms will hamper its efforts to catch up with the United States, Japan and South Korea. Perhaps then China will realize the importance of having Google in its economy rather than outside of it.

Schuman’s opinion is certainly on point as China nears towards a crucial crossroads in its own stage of development. With regards to its economic shift, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier and commands more purchasing power, the government will also need to readjust itself to accommodate this growing echelon of society.

Whether it does so, at least in part, by heeding to the demands of the authors of the aforementioned letter may well be too far off in the distance. While these tumultuous events have increased the volume in previously quiet discussions, we shouldn’t get too excited, not least if this recent Xinhua commentary is anything to go by:

Whether (Google) leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged.

Catching up

It’s been a minute, or a month. This post is my attempt to wade through the news I’ve missed (translation: shamefully avoided due to running off to the UK for a week). So, what’s been happening, and where are the stories? The following are a small selection.

  • A lot of talk today has been hovering around ‘Man of the Year’ Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Party chief and potential contender for the Politburo’s Standing Committee during the 2012 leadership transition. Discussions of the future generation of China’s leaders have been taking place behind the scenes at the current annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). As the Washington Post reported, the charismatic Bo has become the poster boy for a group of emerging Chinese leaders known as ‘princelings’, or descendants of high-ranking party officials. They also claim China’s future lies with its nascent middle class, which would bring about some…interesting results if Bo does rise to power.
  • In addition to his online talks with China’s netizens (which, for blogger Han Song, left many questions unanswered) , Premier Wen preached for two hours in the Great Hall of the People during the NPC’s session. Major themes were tackling corruption and closing the country’s pressing poverty gap. Wen pledged increased social and rural spending, yet his cautious uncertainty over the global economic landscape means this year’s overall spending increase sits at 11.4% (less than half of last year’s 24% rise). Tania Branigan has the details covered here.
  • Earlier this month, thirteen Chinese newspapers surprisingly joined forces in an appeal for social reforms. They attacked the hukou (household registration system), which limits the access of rural migrant workers to basic services in China’s metropolises. The issue was also high on the agenda of the NPC session, with Wen promising change.
  • Also resulting from the session were suggestions for new regulations on China’s Internet cafes. Don Weinland from Global Voices reported that the “People’s Representative Gao Wanneng called for a ‘zero-hour cutoff’ for internet cafes due to ‘long-term Internet addiction’ in the Chinese youth.” Drastic? Yes, according to the netizens featured in Weinland’s piece.
  • The New York Times published a running debate on China’s exodus of graduates facing unemployment. In the past decade, the portion of graduates from Chinese universities has increased sixfold, but their expectations are outweighing actual careers. And while we’re on the topic of education, the China Law and Policy blog makes no effort to disguise the PRC’s academic misconduct, and the legal system that harbours it.
  • Finally, since International Women’s Day has been upon us, Shanghaiist featured a video report from Al-Jazeera about Wu Qin, a teacher at Beijing’s Rural Women’s Training School who aims to empower such women in China’s male-dominated society. God love her.

And so, for those of you not in GMT + 8 (or similar time zone), Happy International Women’s Day!