School violence: does it belong in the news?


The Beijing News, April 30, 2010

A stabbing at a primary school in Leizhou, Guangdong Province on Wednesday afternoon was prominently featured in photos and sketches on the front pages of yesterday’s newspapers (see the Jianghuai Morning News for example).

A second school stabbing at a kindergarten in Taixing, Jiangsu Province, is conspicuously absent from today’s front pages. Instead, many newspapers chose to run headlines and front-page images emphasizing ways in which schools are enhancing their security measures.

The front page of The Beijing News featured a photo of a demonstration of new security equipment designed to help school staff ward off intruders.

According to the paper, nearly 200 forked staves will be distributed to school guards in Beijing’s Xicheng District. Nowhere in the paper is the incident at the Taixing kindergarten mentioned.

Similarly, the Xiaoxiang Morning Post opened a report on recent school violence with a line that cited two other recent attacks and made specific mention of kindergartens without bringing up the Taixing case by name:

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).

This possibility that this week’s attacks were inspired by a stabbing in Fujian Province in March provides one explanation for the downplayed media coverage. The New York Times quotes a Beijing academic to that effect:

In the current string of knifings, which took place hundreds of miles apart, “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 Thursday. “People in similar predicaments emulate this because of the impact of the mass media these days.”

The assaults were also likely to be acts of self-destruction by the attackers, he said, because such crimes stand a high chance of drawing a death sentence.

However, the following notice distributed to Sina web editors suggests a different set of concerns:


Notice sent out by Sina’s News Propaganda Department


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.

Attached: The wording in this link should be rephrased appropriately.

Stabbings at a kindergarten in Taixing, Jiangsu; 26 children receiving medical treatment

The linked article, a short China Radio International report posted at noon yesterday, notes that a stabbing incident occurred at the Taixing Central Kindergarten and emphasizes that the victims have been hospitalized. It does not mention anything about the identity or motives of the attacker, nor does it connect the case to other episodes of school violence.


Foshan Daily, April 30, 2010

Still, a few media outlets did run original reporting on Taixing. The Foshan Daily mentioned the incident in a black box on the front page, and a detailed report inside included speculation about the attacker’s identity:

After the incident, local police quickly arrested the suspected attacker. According to the Jiangsu Province Public Security Department, the suspect, named Xu Yuyuan, was born in 1963 and is 47 years old this year. He is an unemployed Taixing local. He used to work in an insurance company but was laid off in 2001. Previously, he was involved in an illegal pyramid scheme.

However, in the eyes of locals, Xu Yuyuan “had a lot of money.” Ah Meng said that Xu lived on South Jichuan Road across from the Jichuan Experimental Middle School in a four-storey building right along the road. A school supply store occupied the first floor of the building.

“My family rents an apartment on South Jichuan Road too, just a few hundred meters from the suspect’s home.” Ah Meng said that her younger brother was currently studying at a local senior high school just across the road from the kindergarten. “My mom said that a few days ago when my brother was going home with a few friends, they felt like someone was following them. When they got home, they called each other to make sure everyone was safe.” Ah Meng said that after the stabbings, the locals had become very nervous.

She said that at 9 am when the incident took place, outsiders basically had no idea what was going on inside. The news only got out after the Taixing Central Hospital notified parents at 10 am. As she understands it, the 31 victims were divided between Taixing Central Hospital and Wuxi Hospital.

The article goes on to quote some speculation by professor Zhang Xiping, a sociologist at Foshan Institute of Science and Technology, as to the possible motives of the perpetrator. Zhang mentions economic problems (high cost of living, skyrocketing housing prices), family stress, and other pressures.

But a China Youth Daily article argues that the sort of speculation present in the Foshan Daily report should be minimized as much as possible:

Professor Li Meijin, a specialist in criminal psychology at the Chinese People’s Public Security University, classifies this case as “an act of individual terrorism” in which an attacker harms the most innocent of children. By choosing an extreme act that causes immense pain to society, the attacker creates an uncertain fear in the lives of everyone. “These people are frustrated and have no emotional attachments,” she said. If they had connections, then they would not act in this way.

As for their reasons, Li does not agree with blaming the social system: “There will always be things in society that people are dissatisfied with. There may be social causes, but they are not all-encompassing, so they cannot be reasons for them to evade responsibility.”

Criminal suspects will give people a reason after they commit their crimes; “If we take that ‘reason’ seriously, if we go study it, then the ‘conclusion’ will most certainly be wrong!” Li believes that this is the wrong starting point for an investigation, because attribution for criminals is the same as attribution for everyone else: good things are the result of one’s own efforts, but bad things are the product of outside influences! This is the famous Attribution Theory.

“I don’t object to studying society’s problems, but this ought to be done for group interests and situations, such as conflicts over demolitions, conflicts between urban management and street vendors, and wages for migrant workers rather than highly isolated individual cases,” Li said.

Ma Ai of the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese University of Politics and Law…believes that the media ought to take a hands-off approach to this type of case: “Don’t speak of reasons. Just criticize the act as being immoral and inhuman so that everyone will realize that they are antisocial and disgraceful, and that they will face punishment from the law. Only in this way will potential copy-catters be frightened.”

“Reporting on crimes is a double-edged sword. You can’t avoid negative, harmful effects,” said Li Meijin, expressing similar sentiments. She said that goals and methods for committing a crime can be “learned,” and for this reason, reporting on this sort of crime should not be done in detail. Motives and techniques should not be elaborated upon. If they are, their influence will be magnified and they will cause panic in society.

Li believes that scholars must perform detailed investigations for their research, but to the public in society at large, media reports ought to be “watered down.”

A dissenting view can be found in a Southern Metropolis Daily op-ed by Chang Ping, translated at the China Media Project:

Fourth, news reports on tragedies like this are not simply setting an example to possible future perpetrators — they can also serve as a warning and caution. The suffering of the victims might reawaken the conscience of possible perpetrators. And the outrage of the public might allow cause to see that this sort of act is no way to vent their own frustrations. There is no possible way of knowing how many people are exhorted to violence by media reports of this kind, and how many are encouraged to set their knives down.

For those who have already set their wills on seeking revenge against society, the silence of the media on a tragedy like this one might encourage even more ambitious acts of violence. Their goal is to create terror in the public mind. So killing one does not move you — how about ten, one-hundred, a thousand? This is the logic of the terrorist.

Therefore, it is most important to talk about issues like this, and to think of ways we can prevent them from happening in the future. My guess is that those who oppose media reporting of cases like this would not agree that the community should utterly ignore them. They would suggest that internal channels be used, allowing leaders to understand the situation. Naturally, government leaders will prioritize these cases and find ways to prevent them.

But this way of thinking has already been shown to be false. The prevailing modern view of politics is that it is not essentially virtuous, that only supervision and restriction of power by the will of the people can ensure that power is exercised in their interests. And the will of the people is voiced chiefly through public opinion.

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