Outcry over Chinese state media coverage of tragic school attacks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 6:05pm

Two parallel incidents of mass violence occurred over the weekend: a shooting in Connecticut, in the United States, and a knife attack in Henan province, China - both involved men walking into schools and attacking scores of young children.

The biggest difference, however, was that 20 of the young US victims died. In Henan, 22 children were injured, but nobody died.

International media quickly picked up the Connecticut story. Topics such as "gun laws" and "NRA" immediately became trending topics on Twitter. Outside Chinese social media, the Henan knife attack barely caused a ripple. Even in China, state media outlets gave minimal coverage to the attacks, instead opting to cover the Connecticut story more intensively.

The contrasting casualty figures of the attacks left Chinese officials and state media swollen with pride about the country’s strict firearms laws. They moved in to lambast their American counterparts for their inability to garner political will to enact effective gun regulation.

Outspoken editor Hu Xijin of the state-run Global Times newspaper asked: "Isn’t this a human rights disaster?”

A degree of nationalistic fervour also stirred up in the Chinese blogosphere.

“I wish to see more Americans cherish human life and respect for humanity,” wrote a blogger on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service.

“This type of incident should not have happened in the 21st century, in an era of peace, in one of the most developed countries in the world,” wrote another. “America’s gun laws must be reformed.”

China’s zero-tolerance gun laws are amongst the world's toughest. Possession of a single firearm could land a person up to three years in prison while gun-related crimes are usually punishable by execution. Even ownership of gun replicas could get a person in trouble.

But Chinese officials should have little to feel proud of. As residents of Newtown, Connecticut, gathered to mourn the deaths of the 26 victims of the shooting, many details of the Henan knife attack remain shrouded in mystery from the Chinese public.

The Chinese media's attempt to put a nationalist spin on the news has backfired miserably. Netizens slammed state-television network CCTV for providing full broadcasts and analysis of the Connecticut shooting in an attempt to divert attention from the Henan knife attack.

“US President Barack Obama cried on national television, but even our CCTV turned a blind eye to the Henan school chopping. Where is the humanity here?” wrote a weibo user.

“The US shootings and the Henan school chopping were equally as tragic. The problem is that a large group of people at the top decide to only report the shooting incident and neglect the chopping incident,” another wrote.

“Sometimes I cannot stand the narrow nationalistic sentitments of the people. This should be a day of disaster for the world’s children.”

Writer Murong Xuecun posted on his weibo account: “China and the US had tragedies at the same time; the relevant organs issued orders prohibiting the reporting of the scandal at home. Therefore, with much fanfare, every newspaper and television station began to report on the US shooting, with retrospectives, summaries, analyses, finally saying together in one voice: Look at this evil capitalism!”

The Henan knife attack also managed to reveal faults in China's social fabric. It reflected major failures in the country's juvenile health care system which provides little for those suffering from mental health problems. It depicted social fragmentation in a society suffering from huge disparities in wealth and income.

It has also brought to light the holes in public security, given that the attacker went on a rampage for 30 minutes before he was stopped. 

The Henan children are lucky to be alive. China has a experienced a string of similar incidents in the last few years, many with outcomes much worse.

In 2010, eight children were killed and five injured after they were slashed by a knife-wielding man outside a primary school in Nanping, Fujian. It was not more than two months after that, at least eight primary and kindergarten pupils were killed and 57 children injured in four separate but similar attacks in Guangxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shaanxi provinces.

Drawing a comparison between the two incidents would be like comparing apples and oranges. But one weibo user summed up the situation in China quite well: “Luckily China has strict gun laws; otherwise it would be more dangerous than the US.”