Poor security leaves children vulnerable, experts say.
After six attacks on schoolchildren in two months, China is on red alert. The vast majority of schools have already beefed up their security, with both police and teachers now closely guarding school gates, while parents have taken to escorting youngsters to and from class.
So, are the country's children safe from more knife-wielding killers?
Although many people say yes, some argue that far more needs to be done to protect the ruan lei - literally soft ribs, which means the weakest points - in the public security system.
Analysts warn that the widening wealth gap, which is leading to a growing frustration among the underprivileged, and the lack of supervision of mental illness could prove hidden dangers and prompt future attacks.
Outside Hui'anli Primary School in Beijing, 10-year-old Zeng Jiaqi appeared relatively unfazed by the brutal killings in recent weeks. "I'm not afraid," said the third-grader as she stood at the school gate with her parents, who juggle their working hours to make sure one of them can pick her up after school. "My classmates aren't afraid, either."
The innocence of youth is something to be cherished - yet such innocence is something parents cannot afford.
Thirteen children as carefree as Zeng were attacked as they walked to their primary school in Nanping, Fujian province, at 7:20 am on March 23. Zheng Minsheng, a 42-year-old former community doctor, stabbed eight of them to death.
The brutal killing shocked the nation but there was more to come.
On April 12, a man called Yang killed a child and an adult when he attacked a group of people in front of a primary school in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
On April 28 (the day Zheng was executed for his assault), retired teacher Chen Kangbing stabbed 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in Guangdong province.
On April 29, a 47-year-old jobless man in Jiangsu province slashed 29 children, two teachers and a security guard at a kindergarten.
And on April 30, Wang Yonglai, 45, hit five toddlers with a hammer in Shandong province before setting himself on fire.
Police marksmen also shot dead 24-year-old Wang Yi last week after he took a 5-year-old girl hostage in Beijing and threatened to kill her unless a woman he met online agreed to see him.
Apart from the most recent case, the motive behind the attacks remains a mystery.
Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee, urged the country to improve security at schools and kindergartens. Regional governments also need to work on solving social conflicts quickly - several media reports have blamed such conflicts for the attacks - and provide better care for the underprivileged, he said.
An emergency circular released by the Ministry of Public Security also ordered local authorities and neighborhoods to "screen residents for any potential risks", such as people with mental illnesses (police described Yang as having a mental illness) or those "dissatisfied with life and looking to take revenge".
In Beijing's Xicheng district, 112 schools and kindergartens have been equipped with defense sprays and cut-resistant gloves; in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, schools are installing surveillance cameras; and in Shenyang, Liaoning province, teachers and security guards patrol boarding schools 24 hours a day.
Police stationed at schools in Shapinba district of Chongqing have even been ordered to shoot any assailant "that cannot otherwise be stopped", local media reported.
Zeng Jiaqi's school, which is in the capital's Chaoyang district, does not allow any child to leave until his or her parents arrive to collect them.
"Police cars patrol around and a few teachers guard the gate, so we do feel OK," said the girl's 40-year-old father, Zeng Lianshan. "But the real danger is impossible to prevent. How can I know which person on the street is good and which is bad? I showed my daughter a news article about the attack yesterday, to educate her about danger. I also tell her every day not to talk to strangers."
As it is still unclear why Zheng Minsheng and the others targeted children, and with expert opinion divided, finding a way to prevent future attacks is no easy task.
Stopping the violence
Security in Chinese schools, or rather the lack of it, has been the focus of much media coverage in recent weeks and continues to be a "growing concern", said Li Keping, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.
"As the country develops and more rural residents flock to major cities - many of whom can't find jobs - the overall crime rate rises. Schools and kindergartens are not immune to this" yet school security guards are often retired, elderly people that promise little protection against weapon-carrying attackers, he said.
Li's college has run a joint study of school security with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television since last year. "These recent attacks were not the first," he said.
In September 2004, young people broke into a high school dormitory in Hubei province before stealing 742 yuan ($110) and injuring 15 students; between October and December 2009, two children died after being kidnapped from schools in Shenzhen, Guangdong province; and last December a man took 65 students hostage in Henan province to highlight a neighborhood dispute.
"All the assailants were determined to get revenge for their suffering. Such attacks attract more attention as most families only have one child," said Li.
Government policies on school security are mixed, "with some tight and some loose", according to Zhang Hong, a professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University, who said the attacks expose serious flaws in the system.
"Public security is a science that has been ignored," Zhang told China Daily. He said the collapsed schools that buried pupils after the Sichuan earthquake and the accidents that have happened during class outings all reflect problems in school security.
"We need to protect our children with technology," he said. "We need safer doors, windows, staircases, lockers, gates, and better management of traffic in and outside schools. We have to mobilize police, parents, teachers and children in a strict system that leaves no chance for any attack."
Young people are one of the most vulnerable groups and therefore easy targets for those who want to get back at society, said Zhang.
"By attacking children, these men - who are themselves weak - achieve their goal in the shortest possible time," said psychiatrist Wang Jian at Beijing's Huilongguan Hospital. The attack in which Zheng killed eight students in Nanping lasted just 55 seconds, Xinhua News Agency reported.
However, the standard of school security should not be judged by a few cases, said Hong Weijun, director of the Chinese People's Public Security University's safety protection department.
"The country has attached great importance to the security of schools and kindergartens," he said. "Security may not be perfect - and it is certainly not something we should take lightly - but there is no reason to panic." He called for schools to run more drills to educate children, as well as update their management systems.
Liu Guiming, who is part of a juvenile delinquency study at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, disagreed and argued the attacks had nothing to do with security.
"Schools are there to teach children knowledge, not to study public security," he said. "I believe schools have done what they needed to. The attacks were simply the result of social conflicts passed onto children."
Psychiatrist Wang does not believe social conflicts were to blame for the brutal slayings, though.
"Social conflicts and poverty exist in every country. I don't think poor people have to kill others," he said. "From reports on some of the cases, I don't see any conflict. Zheng might have suffered psychological problems, and how can a crazed man kidnapping a toddler in order to see a woman have anything to do with social conflict?"
Like many experts, Wang has called for more legislation on mental health. "The (attacks in April) were all individual cases. It is difficult to say whether the later attacks were inspired by the first since no one knows whether the attackers read newspapers," he said, adding that hospitals often see a peak in cases of mental illness in spring.
"School and community attacks happen in more developed countries, too but only a law will make clear the responsibilities of every government department, hospital and neighborhood committee in managing mental health patients."
Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, are the only cities to have issued regulations on mental health.
The Chinese media has also come under attack for whipping up a frenzy over the attacks.
"When a newspaper reporter asked me to analyze the reason behind the Nanping attack, I declined and asked the reporter not to play it up but all of my worries came true," said Li Meijin, a professor in criminal psychology at the Chinese People's Public Security University. "When media portrayed (Zheng) as a weak member of the society, it encouraged more people in similar situations to follow suit."
Whether it is a social conflict or mental illness, nothing justifies taking the lives of children, she said. "We should have zero tolerance for such brutality."
Li has helped with investigations into several major crimes, including the case in which 23-year-old Ma Jiajue killed four classmates at Yunnan University in 2004.
"Mental or psychological problems can normally be traced 10 years or earlier to a person's childhood, which has nothing to do with social conflicts," she added. "Every society has its ruan lei. We need to clearly identify all of ours and protect them."
-China Daily/Asia News Network