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Is China Becoming More Violent?

June 2, 2010

Yesterday, a 40 year-old woman went on a rampage onboard an overnight sleeper train in northeastern China, stabbing and wounding nine people as they slept before she was wrestled to the ground by fellow passengers.  The same day, a 46 year-old bank guard opened fire outside a courthouse in central Hunan province, shooting three judges dead and wounding three others before killing himself.  The man was reportedly upset about the division of assets in his divorce case.  These two incidents come on top of a series of bloody knife attacks aimed at schoolchildren that have left 17 people (including 15 children) dead, and dozens injured.

One almost never heard of such incidents in China until recently.  In fact, I’ve always thought of China as a remarkably safe country (perhaps because of the draconian penalties often meted out to criminals).  For the first time, however, safety concerns have actually influenced my travel plans: I was planning on taking a sleeper train to Jilin (the same route where the train attack took place) in a couple weeks, but for my family’s peace of mind, I’ve agreed to fly instead.  And as much as I’d like to think so, I’m not sure I’m overreacting.

Rather than offer my own opinion, as I usually do, I’d like to throw some questions out for discussion.  Is Chinese society becoming more violent (and a more dangerous place to visit or reside)?  Or have such incidents always taken place, and are only now being reported and discussed instead of hushed up?  If China is becoming more violent, what accounts for it?  And if the media coverage is what has changed, what does that say about Chinese society — both in terms of the violence that is only now coming to light, and the willingness to discuss it more openly?  Or is everyone making too much of a set of isolated events in what is, after all, a country of 1.3 billion people?

My point in raising these questions, by the way, is not to drag down China (obviously the US has had many similar incidents), but to ask what the Chinese themselves must be wondering amid all these disturbing reports: what exactly is going on here, and what does it mean for China’s future?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2010 9:55 pm

    This raises many questions. We need to place in context: how many people live in China and are these deaths statistically similar or higher than other developing or developed countries? For example, India has, what seems to me, lots of violence every day but not necessarily focused on individuals but around causes or religion. What are your thoughts on that?
    Thank you for excellent insights from China.

  2. Terry permalink
    June 2, 2010 11:05 pm

    I am of the view that this has more with loosened media coverage than with an increasing trend. Slowly but surely, the dirty laundry is beginning to show because the old apparatus of controlling news is becoming less and less effective with the advent of electronic media.

    John’s points on statistics are also very relevant. We are talking here about relatively isolated incidents in a massive population, probably statistically irrelevant. The same goes for the perception of risk by your family. I am sure that the chances of being hit by a car or bus while crossing a street here in China is by far greater than being stabbed on a train to Jilin and yet we cross streets everyday (reminds me of people’s reaction to the SARS ‘epidemic’ in 2003 here).

  3. Ma Bole permalink
    June 3, 2010 4:08 am

    About 10 years ago, I was living off the third ring road near the Hangtian flyover just south of Capital Normal University. Two incidents took place in my compound that year that were never reported in the Chinese press. In the first, a woman and her lover conspired to murder the woman’s husband. They were caught and executed. In the second, two female employees at a hair salon just outside the north gate of my compound were strangled to death one night. In addition to these two murders, the north gate of my compound faced one of the most dangerous T-intersections in Beijing – not a month went by without some poor pedestrian being struck and killed when some ass in a BMW ignored a red light. To the best of my knowledge, though everyone in my compound knew about these deaths, none was ever reported in the Chinese press.

    Also, in the spring of 2000, a Peking University student named Qiu Qingfeng was raped and killed while she waited for a bus. I remember this incident well because it took place just months after a Chinese student in the U.S. was killed. News of the Chinese student’s death in the U.S. hit the Chinese papers the very next day (it was reported in U.S. papers as well), but Qiu Qingfeng’s death did not. In fact, many students at PKU learned of her death only after friends in the U.S. emailed news of her murder to them. The authorities here in China then did what they do best – they shut down popular BBS sites and forbid all mention of her rape/murder in the local press. PKU students protested and were eventually allowed to hold a memorial service in their classmate’s honor, though none of that was reported by the local media.

    So, in answer to your question, my guess is that Chinese society has always been more violent than you’ve assumed, even here in security-obsessed Beijing. All Chinese know this.

    • Phill permalink
      June 4, 2010 2:20 am

      Ma Bole,

      I totally agree with your sentiments on this issue. I have been following crime trends in China for a long time, resident here ten years, i am foreign.

      I have never subscribed to the view of the majority of foreigners here, who believe crime in China is low. The fact of the matter is that many crimes simply go unreported. The level of crime is much higher than people are led to belive. Therefore creating this false sense of security.

      I am not bashing Chinese society here, on the contrary, i am pointing out that many foreigners live isolated from the harsh realities of what is really happening across the country.

      The official line has been year on year in the 2000’s was that crime levels across all categories was dropping. It has not been dropping, it has been rising. There are countless contradictory examples of statisitics up to 2008 that substantiate this. People need to sit back and take note of what is really happening out there.

  4. Francis permalink
    June 3, 2010 4:40 am

    I agree with Terry for the part.

    I grew up in China in the 70’s and 80’s, there were always acts of violence, some were exposed locally by word of mouth, while others made their way into state media (which works very hard to suppress any news deemed “damaging” to the perception of the state). IMO the Cultural Revolution completed destroyed traditional values and morals, and as a result, the Chinese adults who came of age in the 60-70 ‘s timeframe either has the traditional moral nor the respect for law and order to refrain from acting out a violent outburst.

    On top of that, the lack of social security, the fierce competition for limited jobs and resources, an social indifference all works in conjunction to put ordinary citizens under severe levels of stress, which lead to anger against society. With under-developed psychiatric practices in the country, these citizens lack healthy outlet for their anger and thus commits acts of violence (often against weaker targets) to “pay back” society.

    I think there are primarily two factors that caused the seemingly escalating levels of violence. First of all, with the penetration of internet and forming of internet communities, what used to be “local” acts of violence can all of a sudden propagate across the entire country (and even the entire world) in very short amount of time. This acts to magnify an existing issue, which is that acts of violence has always existed at a local scale in Chinese society. Second of all, the recent rise in housing prices and inflation has put even greater pressure on the low income classes in the society, increasing the likelihood of someone committing an act of violence in outburst – “going postal” for a lack of better words.

    It’s really sad to see Chinese society becoming this way. I think the CCP leadership realizes the increasing social inequality is destablizing the country and causing problems at a grassroot level, hence their emphasis in building a “harmoneous society”. I just hope the plan succeeds and things don’t get worse from here.

  5. June 3, 2010 1:33 pm

    What an excellent question! From the previous comments, it looks as though we are in agreement that isolated acts of violence has always existed on a local level in China. I think the more troubling trend we are seeing now is the lashing out on a larger and more random scale.

  6. semuren permalink
    June 3, 2010 11:24 pm

    I think a distinction between what Francis calls “going postal” and other acts of violence need s to be part of the analysis. Though Francis connects going postal with specific causes what I would emphasis is the time of act: violence directed against strangers with out a financial or sexual motive. This seems to be the nature of the school stabbings, the train attack and even the divorce settlement related shooting. I would argue that this sort of revenge-against-society violence is a bit different from what Ma Bole brights up as examples above. (Not that it matters to any of the victims, of course.)

    I do not know if these “going postal” incidents are new or just the coverage of them is. I would guess that it might be a bit of both. While I too tend to think of China as “safe.” In the ten years I have been here there have always been incidents of drunken arguments turing into brawls and often resulting in serious injury or death even in the big eastern cities where I have spent most of my time. But now having been doing research for several years in the small towns along the SW border I can say that violence of this sort is very common.

    In some sense it is not the prevalence of violence per se (and I have not even brought up state violence in it many forms) but the social and physical spaces in which it happens that make things seems more or less threatening (to certain group) . The “going postal” genre of general anti-social violence just brings the fear into social and physical spaces where it was not as prominent before. But for my friends in Dehong a fight at the night market were knives, clubs and improvised weapons are used is just as common as it used to be. And it doesn’t merit any press coverage.

  7. June 4, 2010 6:42 am

    Violences become prevalent in China since Ming dynasty, there are books on this
    subject, e.g. Banditry and subersion of State Authority in China by David Robinson,
    Hidden Power: the Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China by Mary Anderson, etc.,
    I guess this has to do with two factors: a) the rapid growth of population, and expansion
    of society, b) the inadequacy, or corruption, of government organisation, especially
    in internal security. Let’s face it, 1.4 billion is just too huge for any government to
    organize.

    I expect, like dysnasties before, religious cults will flourish and take hold, which become
    an undercurrent in every rebellions and turmoils, which the authorities in faraway
    Beijing are really worrying.

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