Attacks on children signal deeper social ills

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am

The recent spate of at least five senseless attacks on kindergartens and primary schools, since late March, has understandably caused national anxiety over school safety and has prompted analysts to explore deeper social implications.

To the credit of the central government, it has ordered a significant beefing-up of security around schools nationwide, including a high-profile police presence and recruitment of security guards armed with pepper spray and knife-resistant gloves.

But the mainland leadership appears to have dismissed the attacks as isolated cases as most of the state media reports have refrained from exploring deeper social issues behind the attacks and instead focused on suggestions that the attackers may be mentally ill. This is in sharp contrast to the blunt internet comments blasting corrupt officials for violating the civil rights of the disadvantaged and the government's failure to allow people avenues to vent their anger as some of the fundamental causes. And government censors have acted swiftly to delete such comments.

This is truly unfortunate. By failing to explore the deeper social implications and finding effective ways to allow people to vent their growing anger against widespread social injustices, the mainland leadership is inviting more trouble down the road.

In other words, it is time for the leadership to open valves gradually to help people release their long-simmering anger.

It is easy to attribute the barbaric acts, which have left 11 people dead and several dozens injured, to the mental state of the alleged attackers.

The China Daily recently ran a piece saying that mental disorders are becoming a major public health problem on the mainland with a national survey suggesting 17.5 per cent of adults are suffering various forms of mental illness. But of the alleged attackers, only one has a record of mental illness with the remaining four reportedly having a history of repeatedly petitioning government offices to address their grievances without any result.

As many mainland bloggers including Han Han have pointed out, the country's children have become the most vulnerable victims of those seeking to release their anger and vent frustrations in a society that has no effective relief mechanism.

Yu Jianrong , an outspoken academic from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the attacks on children were the latest example of a widening social chasm, mainly precipitated by the government's monopoly of power, and natural and social resources as well as violations of civil rights.

While the mainland leadership has tried to remedy such issues by boosting spending on education and health care for the poor, and fighting corruption, it has maintained tight ideological controls and disapproved of any public displays of dissent in the name of social stability.

In fact, as the social discontent worsens, the central government seeks to harden its resolve by meting out heavier sentences on dissidents, sacking outspoken journalists, tightening controls over internet chat room comments and disbarring activist lawyers.

As the recent attacks on children show, such repressive methods only make matters even worse.

There are several steps that can immediately ease social tension. The most important is to allow mainstream religions to play a bigger role in society.

Although the leadership has relaxed controls over the mainstream religions in recent years, it still sees such faiths as competing influences. This is wrong.

Mainland leaders must realise that mainstream religions can provide much-needed spiritual comfort and guidance to tens of millions of mainlanders disillusioned by the rapid social changes.

Instead of cracking down on underground churches, the central government should speed up discussions with the Vatican whose authority should be recognised and respected on the mainland. This will greatly help promote the social harmony preached by the mainland leadership.

Secondly, the central government should abolish its notorious petitioning system, which has proved corrupt and ineffective. It should instead spend more effort and money on strengthening the rule of law and improving its judiciary systems through which people's grievances can be addressed.

Thirdly, the leadership should display the political courage to set up protest zones to allow people to vent their anger in a peaceful manner. Beijing promised such zones during the Olympics but did not allow any protests to occur.

Such zones, if managed properly, can be a great social release valve and will greatly reduce the number of riots and protests that turn violent and, more importantly, prevent attacks on our innocent children.