Liang Pan

Lessons From China’s Shocking College Campus Murders

(Via Bigstockphoto)

On April 16, 2013, while the attention of the world and the U.S. media was gripped by the Boston Marathon bombings, the Chinese news outlets and social media were captured by horrors of another kind: Huang Yang, a medical science graduate student at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, was poisoned to death, and the prime suspect is his roommate.

Bad news travels in pairs. Almost on the same day, one undergraduate at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics was killed by his roommate, and in a dorm room of Nanchang Hangkong University, a decayed corpse was found hidden.

These heinous crimes revived collective memories of the bygone tragedies on Chinese university campuses. In 1994, Zhu Ling, a highly-accomplished sophomore majoring in physical chemistry at Tsinghua University, was poisoned with thallium, a highly toxic substance. Thanks to diagnoses made through the nascent Internet, the antidote was delivered in time to keep Zhu alive, but her life was destroyed by permanent paralysis and amentia. Zhu’s roommate was the only named suspect in the case, but despite a 19-year long investigation, this case still remains unresolved and has gone cold. Thallium poisoning cases happened again in 1997 and 2007 in Peking University and China University of Mining and Technology, and the victims and the perpetrators were also classmates living under the same roof.

Poison is not the only way that college students harm each other. In 2004, Ma Jiajue, a promising scholarship student at Yunnan University from a poor family, hammered four classmates to death in cold blood.

Receiving an elite university education is still believed to be the main channel to ascend the social ladder in China, and university students at their primes are generally viewed as the future of the country, so the cruelty and callousness of the crimes committed by students at elite universities against each other bring a particular chill to the Chinese society.

Murders on campus always generate public soul-searching about the moral and ethical dimensions of education in China amid its breakneck speed economic growth. China is one of a few countries with compulsory courses on morality and ethics in its K-12 education. However, such courses are heavy on overgeneralized and politically-charged concepts, but light on practical guidance for educators and students navigating the sea change of social values since China’s market-oriented reform started in 1979. In today’s China pragmatists are often rewarded more than idealists; bystanders more than good Samaritans; and nepotism more than entrepreneurship. The highbrow doctrines in the textbook on morality, which students are made to memorize for exams, become ever more irrelevant to the day-to-day life.

Once the state-sponsored education fails to instill moral righteousness in its students, the absence of a robust civil society and an over-arching belief system leaves a rupture in students’ moral education, and for some students, moral standard becomes blurry and arbitrary. Even family teachings, the anchor of a traditional moral education in China, have also been weakened by the side effect of the one-child policy. The only child in the family is more likely to be spoiled by the parents, and hence, less likely to learn about sharing, compassion and commitment.

For decades, China has promoted the so-called “quality education,” which advocates a holistic approach to promote students’ intellectual and physical development. However, because of its large population and limited resources, most still view getting a good education as a cutthroat competition in which cold hard test scores remain the top priority.  The emotional intelligence and mental health of students have long been neglected.

To this day, many Chinese people still ascribe to ancient wisdoms that boast the value of education in materialistic terms — “a house of gold and plenty of beauties can be found in a book,” so the saying goes. When education becomes a survival game, the sheer happiness in the pursuit of knowledge is compromised by cold calculations and insidious backstabbing. China’s educators need to work out a plan to monitor and improve the psychological well-being of their young charges, before another shocking crime on campus takes its toll on Chinese society and families.

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Liang Pan

Liang Pan is studying political communication at New York University. He is an Asia Foundation young diplomat fellow and a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with a major in international relations. He worked extensively in the field of international politics and has lived in China, the Middle East and the U.S.
  • Morgan Lieberman

    Lord! In the U.S., we know better about the violence on campus: shooting spree. Though as an American, I am not in a good position to judge the violence on Chinese university campuses, which is obviously less frequent and leaves less casualties. But, poisoning with chemical compound that I don’t even know how to spell sounds so dark and creepy.

  • Nancy Snyder

    Evil knows no boundary, and cruelties should not be matched. Violence, hot or cold, has its root in the different cultures. We, the Americans, like assault weapons and straight confrontation, while the Chinese like the dark game of calculations and backstabbing, the wrest of will and wit.

    • http://www.weibowatcher.com/ WeiboWatcher.com

      I wonder whether you could say that if guns were as easy to access in China as they are in the US.

      • Paul Schoe

        Maybe the ‘like‘ of Nancy is not so much used as ‘enjoy‘ but is more meant as ‘use‘. US uses assault weapons, and Chinese are (maybe due to inaccessibility of guns) using dark games.

        But she does not only talk about the choice of weapons. She also talks about “straight confrontation” and “backstabbing” and those are behaviors that have often developed over centuries of time.
        While relying on the extensive demands that Confucius defined for respect, straight forward confrontation was always more difficult and less accepted in the society, thereby forcing people to develop sometimes “dark games” to achieve objectives that they could not express in the open.

  • Blue Zoe

    Cold and creepy murders. Is it because of the fierce competition in China?