China stabbing attacks raise concerns of growing social tensions

In the wake of a deadly knife attack on a school bus full of Japanese children near Shanghai last month, Japan’s consulate in the city issued a stern warning to its citizens.

“Recently, there have been stabbing incidents in various places across China where people gather (such as parks, schools, and subways). Please be very mindful of your surroundings when you go out,” it said.

The assault by a 52-year-old man in the city of Suzhou in eastern Jiangsu province, in which the Chinese bus attendant died and a Japanese woman and child were wounded, followed a series of incidents targeting Japanese citizens amid escalating anti-Japanese rhetoric on Chinese state media.

Last August, assailants threw eggs at a Japanese school in Suzhou, while in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province, another school was targeted with stones after Japan began to release radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a move that China strongly opposed.

In an acknowledgment of the potential racial motivation for the Suzhou attack, major Chinese internet platforms banned hate speech against Japan.

But the tragedy was just the latest in a series of recent violent incidents hinting at rising social tensions, said analysts. Last month, four teachers from a US college were knifed in a park in Jilin, following a spate of similar attacks targeting Chinese nationals around the country this year.

The Chinese government does not release specific data covering knife attacks, and authorities typically reveal few details from investigations. In May, China’s Ministry of Public Security said the country had one of the world’s lowest rates of homicide and criminal activity in general.

But videos of the stabbings have gone viral across Chinese social media despite official censorship, feeding speculation that social hardship is fuelling rising discontent.

A police van at a bus stop in Suzhou where a woman and her son were stabbed
While Chinese authorities claim to have one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, seemingly indiscriminate stabbings occur with regularity © Ichiro Ohara/The Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters

China’s economy is in the doldrums because of a prolonged property sector downturn, and economists say unemployment is higher than the official rate of about 5 per cent.

The Communist party’s repressive social system has led to “people becoming increasingly atomised”, said Wang Yaqiu, research director for China at Freedom House. Isolated individuals could resort to random acts of violence to express their anger and estrangement. “The economy plays a role,” she added. “Economic crises make life very difficult, causing dissatisfaction.”

China’s security state maintains strict controls over weapons access, such as banning most private firearm ownership and restricting even gun replicas. Citizens are also often required to show identification when buying large knives.

But stabbing attacks still occur with some regularity. This week, a 64-year-old man killed three people and injured one in a knife attack in Shenyang, the capital of north-eastern Liaoning province, according to the city’s police. The suspect reportedly had a history of mental illness.

In mid-June, a 54-year-old man injured three people in a rampage at a Shanghai metro station. An attacker in May killed two people and injured 10 at an elementary school in Guixi, south-eastern Jiangxi province. The same month, an assailant killed two people and injured 21 at a hospital in Zhenxiong, south-western Yunnan province.

Shuai Wei, a lecturer of sociology, social policy and criminology at the University of Liverpool, said there was no official data to show knife attacks had materially increased but added that data showing a decrease in violent crime rates “should also be interpreted with caution”.

“The reliability of crime data in China is frequently questioned due to potential under-reporting and possible manipulation of statistics for political reasons,” he said.

Wei added that crimes could be reclassified or under-reported by cadres to present a more favourable image of public safety and social stability in their cities.

Map showing locations of Jilin City, Shanghai, Suzhou, Zhenxiong and Guixi in China

The nature of recent attacks, which have usually been perpetrated by middle-aged men against random strangers, recalls a phenomenon dubbed “personal terrorism” in Japan, where individuals have carried out mass murder to call attention to their own opinions.

In China, past studies have shown a positive correlation between the crime rate and several economic indicators, including inflation, unemployment and disparities in consumption and employment between rural and urban areas, Wei said.

“We need to spend more efforts . . . to understand how the economic downturn will have an impact, not only on people’s mental health issues, but also on society as a whole, to see whether the crime rate will grow or not in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

In Suzhou, authorities have hailed the victim Hu Youping as a “model of bravery”. Hu, the bus attendant, “rushed forward without hesitation” to confront the assailant and save children’s lives, the government said. The Japanese embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai flew flags at half-mast as a “salute to Hu’s noble actions”.

But Chinese authorities omitted any mention of the Japanese victims. Beijing is wary about ruining a charm offensive launched this year to lure back international tourists and students, which has included visa-free access for an increasing number of countries, analysts said.

China’s foreign ministry this week played down any suggestion that the Suzhou attack had any wider significance. “Such isolated incidents could happen in any country in the world,” a spokesperson said, adding that Beijing would protect foreign nationals alongside its own.

But a commenter on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, said the government owed a debt to Hu, whose heroism had saved Beijing from severe international embarrassment.

“If a busload of foreign kids had been killed, the international impact would have been enormous,” the commenter said.

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