China’s school attack

While the world was reeling from the tragic elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut on Friday and mourning its victims, a less deadly yet equally disturbing incident was unfolding across the Pacific. At around 7am that morning, a Chinese villager (named Min Yingjun) set out on a frenzied rampage at a school in Wenshu Township, Henan Province. Armed with a knife, his attack thankfully killed nobody, yet hospitalised many of those among the 22 victims.

Min was suspected by police, as well as villagers, to be “mentally ill”. I can’t help but let this draw my attention to the appalling state of mental healthcare in China – not only the fact that psychiatric hospitals are effectively nothing but prisons, but also how conducive society is to the degradation of mental health.

Immense competition for success, and therefore pressure, is present throughout life – school, exams (with the infamous 高考 (gāokǎo) university-entry level exam as an example), universities themselves, work places and families. These aren’t exactly the fault of any authority; they’re just hallmarks of a country with a huge population, finite resources and conservative families. Yet these people grow up into a world where poor treatment and unjust legal procedures prevent grievances from being heard, and more extreme measures are needed to vent frustration against the “system”.

Many turn to suicide; China has the 7th highest suicide rate in the world and accounts for over 30% of all suicides across the globe. But there is also a worrying upward trend in violent rampages like yesterday’s, and I’d guess this is largely a trait of a disaffected population who feel powerless in the corrupt system which governs their lives. You could say this is just rehashing the same old argument which relates the lack of democracy to every societal problem, but corruption strips away all hope of what anyone would call a system of justice.

Give the Chinese government their due credit, though. The Xinhua News Agency has very scant coverage of the China stabbings – controlled media doesn’t silently encourage copycat attacks to the same degree as with free, open media (although of course Chinese propaganda still hushes political scandal which should be exposed). Also, strict gun laws lead desperate people to knife crime, evidently less deadly than gun crime. However this is a very shallow form of prevention, and they’d do better to address the root cause of such discontent. Needless to say, the authorities themselves would never say this is due to their politics, though…

I’m trying to steer clear of the whole comparison between the US and China (as so many people do), but the two events’ occurring so close together really highlights what each government can learn. While many in the US believe this is the time to amend the constitution and tighten gun laws, Chinese leaders should recognise the significance that their system has in driving people to extreme measures.

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A week of elections?

By the end of this week, two of the world’s largest and most powerful countries will have held events addressing who holds power at the top (I’m reluctant to compare them both as elections). It’s just by coincidence, of course, that the US presidential election and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 18th National Congress have fallen in the same week, and I’m not going to launch into the democracy vs. [insert whatever China is here] argument here; it’s been done so widely already. There are already plenty of viewpoints around what the rest of the world thinks about China, but what I have heard to be some Chinese people’s view on the rest of the world reflects something else which is relevant in this week’s events.

I regularly email friends I met in China, and in one recent email I asked one of them what opinion she held on the CCP reshuffle, Xi Jinping [the expected new President], and what effect any change would have upon her.

The first thing she answered with talked about the British situation, and in particular the Labour Party and Ed Miliband:

He is pretty young and close to workers. I think that kind of represents that Britain is still caught in economic stagnation. People feel unsafe because of unemployment, inflation and global competition so they would like a party to support the welfare system and charge tax from big corporations as well as rich people.

Next up was her opinion on other world governments:

Americans vote in the morning and know who is president in the afternoon; North Koreans know who their ruler will be since they are the children [of the current leader]; Japanese vote all the time yet still don’t know who the ministers are

Then, finally, comes her opinion on her own country:

As a Chinese, we basically don’t have many political rights. We can’t choose anything. Yes, we vote our representatives, but we know nothing about him and that representative says yes to nearly all the motions. I don’t watch CCTV [the state broadcaster] so I know little about him. In my mind he is another second-generation Communist who was born into power. In daily life young people rarely talk about politics – we just make fun of it in our own way. You cannot express your opinion openly and seriously, otherwise you are in danger of, in extreme cases, being imprisoned. At last, the most important thing in politics is that we free our minds, eyes, ears and mouth. We should have the right to have different ideas, and can’t let the party tell us what to believe.

The last bit, on Chinese politics, is what we hear about a lot already and is not a huge surprise – people’s awareness of their lack of participation, and a latent yet suppressed desire to change that. However what I find most interesting is the very fact that she first talks about foreign politics (many would say this is just way of finding freedom to express opinion). I really don’t know if it’s true that Japanese people don’t know who ministers are, but the fact that young, educated people in China seem increasingly aware of foreign issues just reflects how, with globalisation in full swing, it is now possible for opinion not to be centred on the whole Communist thing. All the anti-foreign rhetoric once used to enforce state loyalty is no longer water-tight. After all, who would have thought that she knew nothing about her own leader yet enthusiastically talks about Ed Miliband, a leader of the opposition in a faraway country?

“Cut Off the Foreign Snake Heads”

First, take a look at this video which has recently been making waves across the Chinese blogosphere: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2bzZdcLhBY&feature=youtube_gdata_player. In short, the video depicts a British man, wandering around drunk on a busy street at night, who after allegedly attempting to rape a Chinese woman is launched upon, beaten unconscious and kicked by some passers-by. The police come and the British man is taken away. He is most likely to be charged and deported back to Britain.

Second, read this translation of a comment made by journalist Yang Rui, the host of the Dialogue television programme on the Chinese state broadcaster’s English language channel, CCTV9:

“The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign hoodlums and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [popular drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.”

Yang’s commentary was made via his Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), which can be found here (in Chinese), if you’re interested: http://www.weibo.com/1348026261/yjnYxsVVn#1337343448208.

I reacted to each of these examples with contempt. The video of the British hooligan is sadly an example of what a small but considerable group of foreigners get up to when overseas, not just in Beijing, but also in other countries around the world. His actions are inexcusable and retribution for his actions are something which I believe no-one would disagree with. The quotation made by Yang Rui is sadly an example of how a small but considerable group of die-hard nationalists can react to foreigners’ inappropriate behaviour by exerting prejudice against all foreigners and encouraging xenophobia, rallying the troops to carry out an epic crusade against the wicked aggressors and to purge them from the land.

It’s like we’re back in the 19th century, the time of the Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese War, gross concessions made by China to foreign powers, and what some Chinese refer to as the “century of humiliation”. When foreigners commit atrocities in someone else’s country, this is the dynamic which arises. The actions of certain individuals are suddenly taken by influential people and portrayed as some evil agenda of whatever group they tend to come from, or rather any outsider. “Foreign snakes”, “foreign trash” and “that foreign bitch” draws no distinction between anyone who is not Chinese and, as such, Yang’s message seems to coalesce all foreigners into one entity, tarnishing them with the same brush without any understanding. Foreigners carrying out crimes, human trafficking and espionage in China may exist, and the problem needs to be addressed, yet I’m certainly none of those, and neither is anyone I know. What is most worrying, though, is how a public figure, under the control of the state broadcaster, can be allowed to make such inflammatory comments to incite prejudice, and probably not face losing his job.

Consider also that recently the PSB has, following the arrest of the British man, announced a clampdown on the illegal residence of foreigners in the Chinese capital. The China Daily published under the headline “Beijing to clamp down on illegal aliens” that foreigners who illegally enter, reside or work in Beijing will be subject to new inspections and that the public will be mobilised to report such illegal aliens: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-05/14/content_15290400.htm. Fair enough, foreigners need to play by the rules, and so should everyone. What’s interesting though, is that this is a knee-jerk reaction to the incident with the British man; and that’s not me implying that, the incident is mentioned explicitly in the report. Furthermore an individual’s nationality, their ability to provide correct papers and their potential to commit crime are all suggested to be intertwined factors.

The PSB announcement is reasonable, yet I don’t feel the same about the words of Yang Rui. The above quotation is through translation and, of course, this is not especially loyal to the cultural mindset behind his words, yet the generalisation and demonization of foreigners is something I feel is wrong, whatever language it is expressed through.

This is no criticism of China. Neither is it a criticism of the Beijing authorities’ (frankly understandable) stance on dealing with unruly foreigners. Yet let the words of Yang Rui be taken as a case-study on how vehement nationalists from whatever nation can use generalising as a weapon against a perceived enemy who is, in the vast majority of cases, very capable of behaving himself.