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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Killing Bliss in China

 Men armed with metal poles patrol outside a kindergarten in China
At 8.20 a.m. yesterday, 48-year old villager Wu Huanming entered the Shengshui Temple Kindergarten in Shaanxi province in north-east China, took out a kitchen cleaver and hacked to death seven children and two teachers. He also injured eleven others.
Shockingly, it was the sixth such attack in a Chinese primary school or kindergarten in less than two months. The first attack occurred in Nanping, Fujian province, on March 23, when former surgeon Zheng Minsheng, 42, killed eight children and injured five. Then followed four school attacks in April in Guangxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces.
The school attacks have all happened in towns or small or medium-sized cities and were committed by unemployed or underemployed middle-aged men. Most had personal grievances that they felt powerless to redress. The attacks have been escalating at an alarming rate, several of them being copy-cat massacres.
 The locations of the recent school attacks
What are we to make of this very sudden shift in Chinese society, which has always seen itself as holding a deep love of children? What does it say about futures within and beyond China?

Chinese intellectuals have often criticised modern China for not being a very reflective country, but this recent wave of attacks has shocked the nation, and people at all levels of society are beginning to ask some big questions. What is it about modern Chinese society which causes some middle-aged men to become crazed child-killers?
One insightful analysis has come from Yu Jianrong, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His specialty is social unrest. Yu said the killings indicated that “hopelessness” was now widespread in current Chinese society. Notably, the targets of the attacks have been society’s most vulnerable and weak, suggesting that the killers felt powerless to strike out at the cause of their problems.
As Yu Jianrong lamented:
It is indeed very serious. The predators knew they would die and they don't see any hope for the future. I cannot say all the predators are impoverished. But they don't see any hope in a polarised society and it is a very serious problem.
Chinese society has indeed become very polarised. Those outside China might not realise how the country operates. The Communist Party controls the country at all levels, but it is not a “harsh” dictatorship in the traditional sense. In each province, city and village, there are Party leaders or cadres, and they are the people who control things. Chinese society is very hierarchical. Those at the top are “respected”. They control the power , grant the favours, distribute the money, allocate the development projects, and say who gets what. Average citizens seek to develop good relationships with these leaders. This is known as “guanxi”(pr. “gwaan she”). If a person has no guanxi (relationship with powerful people) the individual has little or no power or status, and will most likely struggle to prosper in career and finance. 
 One of the children recovers in hospital
Yet there is another bind. There is an increasing shortage of women in China. In some provinces the ratio of male births to female is now as high a 130:100. This is because of the One Child Policy. With no real social security, a couple is dependent upon their child in old age. Though things have improved in recent years, it remains true that the career prospects of women are very limited. If you have a daughter, you will probably be poor in old age. Thus many female fetuses are aborted in the womb.
Further, today’s girls will grow up and choose partners, and in a very materialistic society, the preferred partners will typically be men with money and status. Thus, hose men who are poor lose out not only financially, but in terms of love. The current system leaves literally tens (maybe hundreds)of millions of men poor and loveless. In short, modern China is a powder keg waiting to explode.
As an intuitive, I am able to sense the emotional states of others. Wu Huanming, the man who killed the nine people at the kindergarten was suffering from a severe sense of isolation and helplessness. He felt excluded, and had a deep anger at the lack of love in his current life, which triggered emotional issues from his childhood, where he felt his needs were neglected. A sense of abandonment, including deep grief and rage, lay at the core of his psyche. In modern China children receive almost unimaginable amounts of love and attention from parents. Whenever Wu saw this, it filled him with rage at his own lack of love, both past and present. At his core, his spirit was screaming. “Nobody cares about me! I am lost.” His soul was a mixture of extreme self-loathing and sense of inadequacy, and a hatred of others. His rage became projected outwards.
Social exclusion (abandonment and rejection) is painful. It tears the soul. I can comment from that at a personal level, as I have experienced an inordinate amount in my time. What I have, though, is an inner world, and a spiritual life to fall back on. China’s education and society leave almost no room for introspection at all. By the time he or she enters kindergarten, the life of the child becomes drilling for exams, silent conformity, computer-mediated entertainment, and sleeping. There is no time for the world within (and clearly, this problem is not exclusive to China). 
Elsewhere I have written about the need for the human soul to live and express its Bliss, its deepest needs. For the individual to listen to the soul, there needs to be a space for  that listening, for the flourishing of an inner world. Otherwise the ego simply identifies with material forms. In such a scenario, if the material forms are taken away, the ego is left with nothing to make meaning of life. There is only emptiness.
China’s leaders have made GDP growth the core focus of policy, and emptiness has followed for many. China now exists in a dangerous spiritual vaccuum. All else has been sacrificed before the GDP God. Humanism, compassion, respect and love have played little or no role in the Communist Party's vision of the future. Hu Jintau’s Harmonious Society always rang hollow, its very foundations weakening with every bulldozer that erased yet another home to make way for a glittering shopping mall.
China’s leaders are now faced with a dilemma. What policy decisions do they make to redress this situation? Tightening security at schools is like sticking a cork in a cannon.
Loosening restrictions on the One Child policy may help. Making social services, including counseling, more freely available would be a good first step. Developing a civil society would be a noble longer term aim.
Yet even these will not redress the big problem. The current system is set up to favour a leadership which has achieved the status of an unaccountable a privileged class. Social justice is limited, because there is no independent judiciary; and so rule of law is limited. Corruption and avarice is widespread, and those with the power, status and money do not want change. They have it too good.
The central leadership is well aware of all this. There have been concerted efforts to stamp out corruption. Many crooked leaders in the provinces have been executed. Yet their efforts are akin to a serial rapist preaching sexual morality. The Central government in Beijing is a secretive operation which exists in an impenetrable, untouchable world beyond the reach of the general public. They are literally above the law, are fiscally unaccountable, and cannot even be personally criticised by the media.
Just as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed harsh truths about the USA, these latest attacks in China have revealed the raw underbelly of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese authorities have engaged in a systematic PR job in recent years to present the very best of China. The glittering fireworks of the Olympics, the carefully measured and selected beautiful soldiers of the 60th Anniversary parade in Beijing, and the pomp of the current World Expo in Shanghai. Yet all that is as much a world of smoke and mirrors as a reality. The Great Hall of the People’s, where President Hu Jintau resides, is in danger of looking like the castle of the Wizard of Oz.
How much longer can they maintain the illusion, and how many will keep believing in it, in China and abroad?
Human futures, whether they be in China or elsewhere, cannot be sustained on pure economics alone. Materialism is a common denominator, but if not mediated by deeper, sustainable and more spiritually nourishing values, it runs the danger of degenerating into a collective narcissism fueled by avarice, and lacking in compassion and love. There is no scope for the expression of Bliss where inner worlds and love have been extinguished. For these last two needs are the true values which water the flower the soul.


  1. Well said. What a horrible practice - murdering school children by hacking them to death. If this is not getting the attention of those in power, I'm not sure what will. We are a world in extreme chaos. The only place we can go is within to facilitate real change. Which is exactly what you are saying here.

  2. I'm not saying going within is all the answer, Nancy, but it gives people a chance to be more responsible for the world they create with their mind. Government policy is also important. We need leaders who value wisdom and spiritual development, not just to use education to crank out cogs for the consumer machine. China's current leaders are almost all graduates of Qinghua University, a science and technology university. They are technocrats, and probably out of their depth when it comes to understanding what really makes people tick at a deep level. I'm sure that sounds familiar to people in many countries!

  3. Very penetrating analysis, Marcus. Of course, some people might point out that such incidents have happened in the US, UK and other Western countries, but never so many copycat horrors in such a short space of time.

    It's deeply sad - as I mentioned in my own blog - that the inner tranquility and presence which traditional Taoist and Buddhist culture cherish are so little regarded in modern China, or even seen as a threat (viz. Falun Gong). The "harmonious society" is really just a kind of "keep in your place" and spiritually gutted Confucianism.

  4. The other difference is that in China, Simon, the victims are small children, which certainly makes it unusual. Children receive so much attention in China - and I suspect this causes some dep, pathological resentment in people who feel they have been abandoned by socity and left behind.

    The Harmonious Socity is nice in theory. But the government keep shooting themselves in the foot. as soon as there is some downward movement in the economy, they go into oveerdrive to say the ship has to keep steaming ahead. For example, they chopped 40% off the green budget at the start of the global economic crisis. Harmony with nature and a spiritual ethos is supposed to be a central part of the Harmonious Socity. And they actually barely mentioned the term at the last congress - it has been replaced with "scientific development". I wrote an article about this here: