Liz Carter senior contributor

Why Have Recent School Murders Gripped the Chinese Psyche?


Readers following the news in China may already be familiar with the case of Huang Yang, a doctoral student at one of China’s most prestigious universities who was recently poisoned to death. Over the past week, several similar incidents have made the news: the principal of a school poisoned elementary school students at a rival school, killing two. A girl in Wuhan slipped sleeping medicine to two graduate students in a library before stealing their money. A fascination with this kind of crime – premeditated, anonymous, and potentially deadly – reflects collective fears and dangers in today’s China.

Whereas gun control, school shootings, and other mass attacks have made headlines over the past year in the U.S., poisonings have gripped the Chinese psyche. Guns are strictly controlled in China and far fewer people possess them. In both the U.S. and China, the victims have been students – young and hard-working, with full lives ahead of them. In both countries, these victims represent hope for the future.

Yet the attackers are quite different. In China, the attackers are not thought to be motivated by anger against society at large. In recent cases, the poisoners have had personal motivations – often jealousy, or greed – and simply felt no compunction about taking another human life. This mindset lacks any expectations at all of society – no hope, fear, or anger; it reflects a view that all bonds in society have been dissolved, and only personal gain is important. Whereas the school shooter or attacker targets a discrete cohesive unit – an idea with which he or she disagrees – the poisoner acts as if no such cohesion exists at all. If the school shooter represents what happens when the violent impulses of our society go unchecked, the poisoner is the final product of a society in which bonds of trust have disintegrated.

The individual poisoner is not the only object of fascination in these cases. Chinese society has also focused on how the government handles the incidents – or doesn’t. Years ago, an unresolved poisoning case gripped Chinese society, and has yet to let it go. In 1994, a student named Zhu Ling, who studied chemistry at another top Chinese University, was a victim of thallium poisoning. Details of Huang Yang’s poisoning – possibly at the hands of a roommate – once again generated discussion about the case of Zhu Ling. Her attacker was never caught. Many suspect that her roommate – who had both motive and access to the poison – was let off the hook due to her powerful connections. Reactions to this and other poisoning incidents have revealed another side of China’s collective fear: the fear of injustice.

As in the U.S., where school shootings have generated debate about increased gun control and safety in society, poisonings in China have also been political issues. Chinese netizens even drafted a White House petition, calling on the U.S. government to deport the woman suspected of poisoning Zhu Ling. Blogger and social media celebrity Li Chengpeng argued that this development shows that China must work on its justice system. He posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter:

In a case in which a Chinese person poisoned another Chinese person in China, China’s own judicial system was powerless. Nineteen years later, the Chinese took to America’s website to seek justice…Over the past few years, Obama has become the Director of China’s Office of Petitioners. I don’t know how he feels about it, but for us, it’s an embarrassment. To earn a reputation as a great nation, we must earn a reputation as a nation that seeks justice.

In the U.S., people are angry about the government’s failure to enact meaningful change in the wake of school shootings. The Chinese are angry about a lack of justice, which contributes to a culture of impunity for the wealthy and powerful. The collective fears apparent in the two societies’ fascinations with poisonings and mass attacks stem from dissatisfaction with broken systems. Only time will tell if these systems are able to adapt, change, and assuage fears – or let them grow unchecked.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.