Deadly bus arson fuels debate on social ills

Social ills may drive some to take violent revenge on society, but many papers warn against sympathy for such perpetrators

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 2:25am

Mainland media revealed more details last week about the life of Chen Shuizong, the arsonist who killed himself and 46 other passengers this month in a bus fire in Xiamen.

By interviewing relatives and neighbours, the media depicted a disgruntled street vendor who had struggled in poverty - an unfriendly, ill-tempered old man who was easily upset. He called himself "a grass-roots citizen" in his microblog the day before he ignited a can of petrol aboard a crowded commuter bus, saying life had treated him unfairly since his youth.

In the 1970s, he was one of the millions of urban youth sent to work in the countryside. Failing to find a job after returning to Xiamen in the 1980s, he eked out a living as street hawker and by doing odd jobs.

He had recently applied for a pension but was refused several times because the government said he did not qualify.

While some media outlets reflected on the causes of the tragedy - his experience aroused sympathy among many people - others warned that terrorists never deserve understanding.

The Xiamen Daily ran a sharply worded commentary describing Chen as a "frenzied" man who deserved society's condemnation.

"From the moment he decided to take revenge on the society … he became an enemy of the people," it said.

Investigators said Chen had prepared petrol beforehand and chose the most crowded bus to stage his deadly protest.

The Jiefang Daily echoed other commentaries that Chen had instigated a calamity and that death would not expiate his crimes.

It warned against the view that the bus fire was a helpless choice by a disadvantaged man: "We need not discuss his 'misfortune' and the 'wrongful treatment' he suffered.

"If we sympathise with this murderer, we're abetting his crimes, and such sympathy could lead to terrifying results."

The Yanzhao Metropolis Daily called for readers to consider technical issues as well as the social problems that contributed to the tragedy.

It questioned security arrangements for Xiamen's express-bus system, and whether the design of the elevated highway where the blaze occurred had hindered rescue efforts.

Surveillance footage showed Chen boarding the bus with a hand trolley and carrying a bag on June 7. He had bought petrol two days before and, in interviews conducted after the tragedy, neighbours recalled smelling it near his home.

Caijing magazine's website said people were intrigued by Chen's case not out of pity for him, but out of concern that there were so many others like him with similar experiences who no doubt felt that they'd been dealt a bad hand in life.

There has been a spate of similar tragedies in recent years in tandem with rising social problems - the widening wealth gap, inequality, bureaucratic inefficiency, and the hukou (household registration) system that discriminates against migrant workers, to name a few.

"Society and individuals should bear some responsibility for these cases, but the government bears most of it."

In Chen's case, the government sent him to the countryside and let him return without giving him a job. His only source of income, a street stall, was removed by the city's Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, and his application for a pension was ignored and passed from one department to another.

"In the past, government employees passing a request to another department was at most a small evil, but now that such tragic incidents appear to be rooted so deeply [in feelings of injustice], these 'small evils' are enough to touch a raw nerve."

It warned if there are no remedies to such social problems, others would take revenge - even if it transpires that Chen did not commit the crime - and "perhaps in a more terrible form".