China Takes Chilling Look at Security in Its Schools

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BEIJING -- The attacker's first young target, a girl with a pink backpack, falls at the school gates as she tries to race away. She gets up, but stumbles again inside the gates as the man slashes at her with a meat cleaver. Two minutes later, dozens of students race out of the gates as the man rampages through the school, eventually wounding 23 children.

Perhaps most shocking is what the video of the attack 10 days ago shows about the school's first line of defense: several children waving broomsticks try to block the man's progress. Minutes later, local adults who had rushed into the building, also wielding brooms, chase the man from the school.

Such details were not in the immediate coverage of the attack, at the Chenpeng Village Primary School in Guangshan County, Henan Province, and the video was not released until days later.

The rampage came on Dec. 14, the same day a heavily armed 20-year-old man killed his mother and then opened fire at a school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 first graders, 6 adults and then himself. Official Chinese news organizations had much more coverage of the Newtown massacre than of the Henan attack, and there was an outpouring of sympathy for the American tragedy as well as commentary drawing inevitable comparisons. Many Chinese Internet users pondered how many students at the Chenpeng school might have been killed if China had gun control laws as loose as those in the United States.

But now the Chinese video, circulating here on television and the Internet, has refocused attention on the Chenpeng attack, especially on security measures at the school and on local officials' efforts to squelch coverage. Fury has been building because such rampages have recurred over the last three years, with intruders slashing at schoolchildren with knives and axes, including one who attacked with a hammer and then set himself on fire. Each case set off fear among parents across the country as well as criticism of government officials for not doing enough to protect children; each time, officials guaranteed schools would be secure. The video made blatant the gap between the official promises and reality.

"Did the government not say that no strangers can get into schools?" wrote one Internet user, Xia Ling, on a microblog. "Did the government not say that every school has security guards? Liars! You will eventually all face karma someday."

Details were slow to filter out. Last Monday, the Internet operation of People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran a report from a journalist who had traveled to Guangshan County. The article on the Web site, which is separate from the editorial operations of the print edition, said that even though school employees had asserted that a security guard was on the premises at the time, the attacker somehow managed to get to the third floor.

The same report said officials in Guangshan County appeared to be trying to cover up the attack. It said that the county propaganda office released details of the attack the day it occurred, but that someone later ordered the news removed from the county Web site. Officials canceled a news conference scheduled for the next day.

Reached by telephone, a county propaganda official told the reporter: "It takes time to check if the man with the knife has a mental disease. It's pointless to discuss it. I need to eat first!"

The reporter found a deputy director of the education office playing a video game; that official refused to provide any answers. School officials and a village official also declined to discuss the attack. But the reporter unearthed the fact that two teenagers had been fatally stabbed in attacks in 2011 and last month at a high school across the street from the county education office.

On Tuesday, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that six officials, including two school principals, had been fired.

Some other reports offered sketchy details about the arrested suspect, Min Yongjun, 36. Beijing News reported Wednesday that he felt deeply ashamed of his epilepsy. An article by Xinhua said Mr. Min believed in the ancient Mayan doomsday prophecy about the world ending on Dec. 21, implying that had somehow affected his behavior. Ouyang Mingguang, a deputy director of the Guangshan police, told Chinese reporters that Mr. Min had first attacked an elderly woman, Xiang Jiaying, and then decided that "he might as well just stab some students since he had already killed a person." (Ms. Xiang was hospitalized but not fatally injured.)

The abiding question of why was asked by one person in charge of the official microblog of People's Daily. "School killings happen over and over again, and murderers who have mental diseases are not the minority," the person wrote. "Has any of the self-examination brought us any changes? These schoolchildren just started their lives; why is it that criminals always attack innocent children?"

Some commentators said the attackers feel they have been wronged by society. "Chinese society is full of anger and rage," Murong Xuecun, a best-selling novelist and popular online commentator, said in a telephone interview. "Everybody has anger. Everybody has hate. Those who have been treated unfairly harm those who are even more vulnerable. It must be noted that every society has its share of sociopaths. But for China to have so many is no doubt abnormal."

Mr. Murong said the only way to alleviate that was to establish a fair legal system and to "achieve real justice in society, so that the people won't be mired in despair."

Other critics blame the lack of proper mental health care in China; at least one man who carried out fatal attacks on schoolchildren in 2010 had exhibited clear signs of schizophrenia, but had not been given proper treatment.

On Friday, the English edition of Global Times, a populist newspaper, published an op-ed by a Chinese writer based in New York that looked at some of the same issues in the context of the Newtown massacre. The writer, Rong Xiaoqing, said the mental health system in the United States also had its shortcomings when dealing with potential killers, since they cannot easily be distinguished from other members of society.

"In the U.S., psychologists and psychiatrists have long followed specific criteria to screen for mental illness," she wrote. "But the mercurial and mysterious human mind isn't always that easy to categorize."

Shi Da and Patrick Zuo contributed research.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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