When two teenaged boys took revenge upon their high school in 1999 the world took notice. The Columbine tragedy quickly became the year’s top story. In a Pew Research Study 70% of Americans said that they “followed the events very closely.” The news media satisfied the public’s appetite for knowledge with around-the-clock coverage. Even the smallest details of the incident, from the killers’ prom dates to their bowling team, were scrutinized by under the mainstream media lens.
Violence targeted at students is not a uniquely American phenomenon. An incident like Columbine happens nearly every year in schools around the globe. How different countries deal with these events differs largely depending on they choose to cover them in the media. One example is the recent string of copycat assaults in China. Over the course of the last year students and teachers in five kindergartens across the country were injured or killed by men armed with knives or hammers. This trend echoes of the Columbine massacre ten years earlier. However, thesimilarities of the two events differ sharply in the way the media reported on them.
While American media was oversaturated with Columbine coverage, the Chinese state-run media has taken great lengths to censor coverage of the kindergarten knifings. The Chinese government’s hegemonic control over local media determined how news stories were selected and communicated to the Chinese public.
On May 12, 2010 a man burst into a kindergarten in Shaanxi province, China and stabbed29 children and three teachers with a knife. Seven children were killed and another 20 were seriously injured. Wu Huanming, the school’s landlord, entered the building at 8 AM with a meat cleaver. He slashed Wu Hongying, the school’s administrator and teacher, and a child standing next to her to death before continuing on to hack 18 other students. Five more students and the administrator’s 80-year-old mother died of their injuries. As rescue teams arrived at the scene, the slasher quietly passed by them as he returned home. When police caught up with him he had already committed suicide.
This was not an isolated incident. Since March there have been at least six other unrelated attacks against schools across the country. This copycatting always involved middle-aged men acting alone in assaulting young children. At least three of the attackers were known to have mental health problems, but it was also widely believed that they were releasing the tensions of living in an authoritarian state upon society. “After being treated unfairly or being bullied by the authorities, and unable to take revenge on those government departments that are safeguarded by state security forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker people,” wrote Shi Chuan in an editorial for Dahe Bao, a newspaper in Henan province.
China had previously been regarded as a relatively safe country with low rates of violent crime , but they have jumped sharply in 2009. “The dire crime situation has a close connection to the influence of the economic crisis,” said Jin Gaofeng, associate professor of criminology at Chinese People’s Public Security University. ”
Another reason (for the increase) is because of the authority’s tightening measures last year against bribery and embezzlement crimes, as well as crimes of malfeasance.”
Another concern is how the country deals with the mental health of its citizens. In one medical journal’s study of four provinces in China of individuals with diagnosable mental health illnesses, 24% were moderately or severely disabled by their illness, 8% had ever sought professional help, and 5% had ever seen a mental health professional.
Also in question is how the state media chose to cover the events. In the earlier incidents the Chinese news was explicit in its coverage of the knifings. After 15 students and one teacher were injured in an attack in a Guangdong school on April 28th the story made front-page headlines and included graphic photos and sketches depicting what took place. “I hid under the table in the classroom when he thrashed the knife at my head. I didn’t feel any pain at the time,” injured student Xiao Huang told Xinhua news.
The very next day 26 children were injured in a school-stabbing spree in Taixing, Jiangsu province. Local newspapers wrote very little about the event, but instead filed stories about the measures that China’s schools were taking to beef up their security. The April 30th Xiaoxiang Morning Post article mentioned other recent stabbings in relation to school safety but did not bring up the Taixing incident.
Eight students stabbed to death in Nanping, Fujian; more than ten stabbed in Leizhou, Guangdong…. one can’t help but worry about the safety of our “flowers” after the recent spate of bloody school attacks. Yesterday afternoon, the Changsha Bureau of Education held an emergency meeting to focus on improving the security of secondary and primary schools (including kindergartens).
Chinese academics initially argued that this approach would discourage imitators who read about the attacks in the news. “Probably there was some kind of copycat element,” Liu Jianqing, a professor of criminal psychology at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said. “People in similar predicaments emulate this because of the impact of the mass media these days.”
However, a government notice was also distributed out to media organizations suggesting to reporters how they should write about the knifings.
In regards to the Taixing Kindergarten Injury Incident, notice has been received from higher levels that Xinhua reports are to be uniformly adopted. In light of the World Expo opening, this news shall not be placed on the front page for the time being.
The state authorities didn’t want the “sensationalized” kindergarten coverage in the media to overshadow the larger event of the Shanghai World Expo that ran till October. Violence in the media would have created a blemish on an event that hoped “to attract about 200 nations and international organizations to take part in the exhibition as well as 70 million visitors from home and abroad, ensuring the widest possible participation in the history of the World Expositions.”
However, on April 30th, one day after the Jaingsu incident and one day before the Expo opening, the trend of school violence continued. A man in Shandong province assaulted five children with a hammer. The attacker was a farmer who broke through a school gate with his motorbike and clubbed the preschoolers before dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire. The man’s wife told reporters that it was a case of social revenge. The government was demolishing the man’s house, which he had spent all his savings on, because it was illegally built on farmland.
The fifth attack occurred when seven children were killed in Shaanxi on May 12th. This was shortly followed by a group of ten men who slashed their way through a vocational school dormitory in Haikou injuring thirteen students on May 18th. Finally, the last reported incident was on August 4th when a man stabbed three children to death and injured twenty others at a kindergarten in Shandong province. More than 27 people have died and at least 80 have been injured in knife attacks, since this year.
It’s obviously difficult to debate the gruesome nature of the reoccurring incidents. Assaults upon the most vulnerable members of society are never pretty. However, in this case it is clear that censorship did not work. Even with a state-run media dictating what China could read in the newspaper the issue was too salient in the culture to cover up. Copycatting didn’t occur because the Chinese people were exposed to violent coverage, but because of a deeper rooted class disparity. It was shortsighted to think that by treating the symptoms the problem itself would go away.
On the other hand, the government was more effective at covering up the attacks to create favorable PR for the World Expo. While the story was reported by the Western media the coverage was limited and it didn’t taint the overall proceedings in Shanghai. Nevertheless, news about the knifings slipped out of the country and was bounced around the Internet by mostly expat bloggers.
Social and independent media helped shed some light on these events, but it’s difficult to really know the feelings of the average Chinese citizen and how they have reacted to the crimes. Compounding the issue are our ideological differences. The democratic voices of the Western free press often put a negative spin on authoritarian China. Whatever the truth of the matter actually is, receiving it has been murky.
How should the media have covered the school knifings? As Americans we have our opinions, but the way that we made a fetish out of Columbine was as equally unhealthy as repressing the massacre. In the end the media is left with a difficult choice. Reporting on an incident like this plays into the killer’s cry for attention by sensationalizing their notoriety. Covering up the story leaves the public in the dark. Without knowledge they cannot thoroughly address the issue. Retracting the news in the interest of politics and economics may make China more powerful and rich, but where’s the benefit in that if the country’s health and well being suffers?