Hanzhong police provided these details at a press conference a day after the killing, according to Xi’an Morning Post. At first glance, it looked like another malignant but isolated crime. In fact, it was only the latest in a series of mass attacks on young children in different provinces of China that occurred between March 23 and May 12. Beijing police said last Wednesday they successfully interdicted seven criminal attempts targeting schools and kindergartens in that city alone.
All over China, people winced. Why are young children being slaughtered? Such massive attacks on children did not happen even in the Cultural Revolution, the most violent period of Communist China. And now China is experiencing unprecedented prosperity.
Despite the apparent similarities in actions and targets, there is no universal explanation of motive. Among the killers besides Wu Huanming were a doctor who could not find a job and, at age 42, had a history of failed relationships, a 40-year-old villager who had suffered mental illness for five years, a 31-year-old school teacher on sick leave for four years; a 46-year-old unemployed man with debts resulting from multi-level marketing, and a 45-year-old villager whose newly-built house faced demolition.
Two of the six suspects were said to have suffered mental illness, prompting concerns about China’s lack of mental health care. But insanity can hardly explain the other four cases.
Most of the suspects lived at the bottom of the society, leading observers to blame their anger and desperation on the wealth gap. The Internet is abuzz with questions about whether China’s economy should be characterized as that of a “rich state, poor people.” But even this does not explain why children were repeatedly targeted.
Chinese cherish children as the promise of their future and their defense against death. Though rare stories exist about “exchanging [dead] children to eat,” those were from disastrous periods of war and famine, when desperation was all there was. Has China today entered such a period of extreme disaster?
Harming children on a mass scale did not start this year. As early as 2004, long before the Sanlu milk scandal, there was the “dark-heart milk powder” incident in which counterfeit milk powder caused the deaths of 13 babies and permanent disablement of 171 others. It outraged the entire nation that someone would target babies to make a profit. That incident reflected a moral decay in China, but no one could have foreseen that child-harming would escalate to the raw violence seen this year.
In one of the six recent school attacks, 45-year-old Wang Yonglai was an even-tempered Shandong villager and a long-time party member. On the morning of April 30, Wang carried a hammer to the village’s elementary school, and pounded five preschool children on their heads. Wang then poured gasoline on himself, grabbed two children into his arms, and lit himself on fire. While Wang burned to death, the two children were pulled to safety by teachers.
This tragedy happened on the day Wang’s new house was to be demolished. According to an investigative report in the independent Caijing magazine, Wang’s greatest wish in life was to build a new house for his son, now 20 years old, so that he would be able to get a wife. Last year, after Wang spent his lifetime savings plus 60,000 yuan of debt, the new house was finally built. Wang had gone through all of the proper procedures. In June 2009, the local government issued Wang’s house the “rights certificate.” On the day of April 23, 2010, however, Wang received notice from a government department that his house was an illegal building and must be demolished in two days. Wang and his daughter called and went to many places trying to save the house -- the mayor’s hotline, the “law hotline,” the TV station -- to no effect.
“Wang Yonglai’s new house still stands right now,” the Caijing report says, “while the demolition day became the day of his death. Using his death, five little children’s blood, and the serial effect of other school attacks, he temporarily preserved the painstaking effort of his life.”
One office of the government approved Wang’s house’s legal status, but another government office judged it an illegal building. Wang was given only a few days notice before the demolition. The government was too powerful, and the ordinary villager powerless. Finally, “the weak take revenge on the weaker,” concludes a Chinese blogger. Robbed of his future by a state impervious to his plight, he took revenge by destroying others’ futures -- their children.
Wang’s plight is reminiscent of that of a Sichuan woman, Tang Fuzhen, who burned herself to death last November in a failed attempt to stop the local government from demolishing her house. After her death, the government judged Tang and her relatives to be criminals who “used violence to fight the law.” The government also tried to block media reports on the case. Tang’s death, and similar self-immolations in other Chinese cities, did not stop forceful house demolitions by the government and developers, nor did the tragedy rouse any remorse. Only about a month ago, a government official involved in demolishing Tang’s house was still saying the cause of the tragedy was that Tang “did not have knowledge of law.”
When suicide alone is no longer effective, the most horrific crime – mass killing of children -- becomes the most effective option to some of those desperate enough to end their own lives. More than a manifestation of individual problems or even of social injustice, it is an act of war against China’s collective future. It is a sign that now is a time of extreme desperation, for all China’s great strides toward prosperity.
Xujun Eberlein is the author of “Apologies Forthcoming,” a story collection set in China, and the “Inside-out China” blog.
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