Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:00 PM CST – China

Special Report

Anti-social Crime

Villains and Victims

China is asking why some citizens seem to be driven to commit horrific attacks against innocents, often without an apparent motive. Whatever the reasons, a consensus seems to be emerging as to how to resolve this social illness

The gutted shell of a bus in Guangzhou, July 15, 2014 Photo by ic

Police negotiate with a suspect who hijacked a coach and, when cornered, stood outside the guardrail of a bridge threatening to commit suicide, Wuhan, Hubei Province, August 8, 2014 Photo by cfp

In the space of 45 days at the height of summer, three arson attacks on public buses in the cities of Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Yantai shocked China’s population. Since 2009, nearly 90 people have been killed in such attacks, including, in one case, a four-month-old baby boy, while hundreds have been injured.

Such attacks are not limited to urban arson. On September 1, the first day of a new semester, three students and a teacher were killed and five other students were injured at a county elementary school in Shiyan, Hubei Province by a man who was later identified as a parent of another student. After dozens of kindergartners and elementary school students were hacked to death in a spate of knife attacks in several cities in 2010, the specter of violence has continued to hang over Chinese campuses. Security guards toting defensive weapons have been deployed in kindergartens and schools, with mandatory inspections among other security measures conducted at the beginning and end of each semester.

There are also a number of cases in which people have called local police stations to threaten to “do something big and extreme” if the police refused to help them with their personal problems, the most prominent typically being issues with debt or failing relationships.

Analysts and media sources have typically described these crimes as the ultimate method of venting social frustration – channeling personal anger into a murderous assault on vulnerable groups in attacks that are guaranteed to attract media attention. Most concerning to the general public has been the apparent inability for such criminals to be identified before they offend – most are impoverished, many are either mentally or physically ill, and almost all maintained a practically invisible public profile before they struck.

While various solutions have been proposed, with the public looking to opinion formers, the authorities and even their own social circles for answers, nobody seems able to definitively say what exactly is the catalyst for these crimes, nor how they might be, for the most part at least, prevented.

Downtrodden

In 2004, 16-year-old Ou Shangsheng, along with his older sister, left his hometown, a mountain village in Hunan Province for the southern city of Guangzhou to begin a new life as an apprentice to his uncle, a carpenter. He thrived in his new role, and in 2013 he was even able to make a down payment on a 129-square-meter apartment in his home county, expecting to have paid off the mortgage within three to five years. Then, in July 2014, Ou was detained at an Internet café by police who had identified him as the sole suspect in the Guangzhou bus arson case.

People close to Ou told our reporter that he became “a different person” after he suffered a lower back injury at the end of 2012. Unable to continue as a carpenter, Ou struggled to find a stable job, because he could not stand or sit in one position for long. As he only had a few years of elementary education, having left school while still a child, he couldn’t even operate a cell phone or use word processing software.

After losing his job, Ou’s cousin told NewsChina, he divided his days between watching TV in local Internet cafés and sitting in his rented room, ignoring those who attempted to contact him. When his elder sister found that he was gambling, and asked him to stop, Ou responded that he felt living as a jobless, disabled person was “meaningless.”

Ou’s story was familiar to investigators looking into what the Chinese authorities and media are terming “anti-social crimes.” In several cases, suspects complained that their rights had been infringed by local governments. Ji Zhongxing, for example, a wheelchair-bound man who detonated an explosive device at Beijing Capital International Airport in July 2013, claimed that being beaten by urban security officers in 2005 had left him paralyzed, and that all his bids for compensation had been rebuffed.

While the public are often quick to conclude that the perpetrators of anti-social crimes are mentally ill, except in one or two cases, serious psychosis does not appear to be a factor. However, clinical depression and severe anxiety are almost universally present in suspects, who otherwise share very few characteristics. All income levels, living situations and educational backgrounds seem to be represented, with migrant workers, teachers, doctors and farm laborers apparently equally likely to offend.

Panicked

The severity and apparent randomness of anti-social crimes has led to a charged atmosphere in public spaces, with people inclined to panic when a potential threat appears. On August 14, when a man on a bus in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, was seen playing with a cigarette lighter in a plastic bag, a passenger immediately sounded the alarm, resulting in the evacuation of the bus and the police being called. It later transpired that the man, who may suffer from mental problems, had merely been trying to burn a loose thread from his clothing.

The Chinese public appear disinclined to hear the other side of the story when it comes to anti-social crimes. A week after the Hangzhou bus arson attack in early July, the website of the influential South Metropolitan Daily was inundated with complaints after it ran a feature detailing the suffering of suspect Bao Laixu while in custody. The report was pulled after only 12 hours online. Many netizens have even called on the authorities to prevent too much detailed media reportage of anti-social crimes, in order to prevent further “copycat” attacks.

Given the violent outcomes of many civil disputes in China, particularly concerning individual debt and land appropriation, fingers are often pointed at the government when the stories behind anti-social attacks come to light. Abuse of police power, red tape when attempting to secure redress for social injustice, and the employment of heavy-handed quasi-official law enforcement to settle difficult social problems are all frequently cited when journalists and analysts attempt to deduce why seemingly ordinary citizens would direct violent attacks against the general public.

Zhu Li, a professor of sociology at Nanjing University and an expert on social conflict, told NewsChina that he sees anti-social behavior as the “most pathetic and most abhorrent way of dealing with grievances, no matter what their origin.” He added that both personal and social problems need to be addressed to end the cycle of violence.

Internal Anger

Xu Jing’an, a former senior government official and a trailblazer of economic reforms in China culminating with the establishment of the Shenzhen stock exchange, set up an NGO in 2009 in Shenzhen helping people in despair seek counseling. He told NewsChina that one of his younger clients wanted to “kill foreigners to attract social attention” which could use to raise funds for the medical treatment of his ill nephew. During their sessions, Xu discovered that the young man’s marriage had broken down after his own son died from an illness. Without an outlet such as a therapist or psychiatrist, Xu argues, there is nothing to stop such people from acting on their impulses.

Xu is currently working on proposals to include psychiatric care provision as part of the national healthcare budget. He believes that a small portion of China’s massive internal security fund would be enough to build a national counseling network that could prevent or at least mitigate the effects of anti-social criminality. The series of bus arson attacks this summer have only served to heighten his sense of urgency.

Professor Zhu Li stressed that mental health professionals have to be deployed within communities to build an archive of first-hand data and provide mental health education and counseling services where they are most urgently needed.

The potential risk to the mental health of China’s “left-behind children” – infants and young people left in rural communities in the care of often elderly or infirm relatives by parents working in cities – has aroused particular concern in recent years. A survey by the All-China Women’s Federation showed that there were 61 million “left-behind children” living in rural areas by the end of June 2014, with 38 percent of these aged under 5 years old. Many are simply left to their own devices, and thus become vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, substance abuse and homelessness.

Many surveys undertaken by both local courts and the media in recent years found that “left-behind children” were more likely to engage in anti-social behavior, more likely to suffer from personality disorders, and more likely to be both the victims and perpetrators of criminal acts. While reform of China’s controversial hukou system, effectively an internal visa restricting employment and social security access to one’s birthplace, could help reduce the population of left-behind children, few would dispute that more needs to be done to tackle what is seen as a looming mental health crisis.

There are also proposals calling for the establishment of a formal system like the UK’s now-defunct Anti-social Behavior Orders (ASBOs) which could serve as a formal “report card” for young offenders, targeting those who “act in an anti-social manner…that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household [as the offender].”

Both American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization guidelines focus on subjects’ lack of empathy, propensity to blame others for conflict and persistent misconduct to determine whether or not a criminal suffers from a personality disorder. Experts have been quick to warn the public not to label those suffering from depression, anxiety or personality disorders as potential “anti-social criminals.” Professor Ma Ai, director of the Clinical and Counseling Committee of the Chinese Psychological Society, told NewsChina that psychosis must be formally diagnosed before it be cited in court. He added that personality disorders affect all societal groups, not only the disadvantaged.

Social Illness

Professor Pi Yijun at China University of Political Science and Law believes that the choice by many so-called anti-social criminals to target vulnerable groups, specifically young children and infants, can be classed as “social hostility” – venting one’s own pain by inflicting as much pain on a community as possible. In Pi’s view, discontent, distrust and resentment between family members, social groups and between the individual and the State all contribute to a sense of social hostility.

Many analysts and netizens have documented a rise in violent public incidents stemming from seemingly trivial disputes. Movie theater audiences, commuters and Saturday shoppers are all seemingly more likely to erupt into violence and foul language if they feel inconvenienced or disrespected by those around them, with a number of prominent examples captured via camera phone. Analysts, public opinion and the government seem to buy in agreement that this “touchiness” which, in extreme cases, might lead to an attempted murder, is the product of pervasive anxiety due to a widening gulf between both individuals and groups living within society as a whole. As Professor Pi argues, while conflicts of interest and emotion tend to be more common in utilitarian and pragmatic societies, this tends to cause the disintegration of family unity and close friendships. To at least some members of Chinese society, it seems, everyone is a potential enemy.

It is also widely recognized that inadequate social security provision and well-documented and widespread social injustice further stretch the “trust gap” between the individual and society, a factor which exacerbates anxiety and frustration. In 2010, former Premier Wen Jiabao and former spokesperson of the Public Security Ministry Wu Heping, recognized that knife attacks on kindergartens were at least partly the result of a buildup of frustration with perceived social injustice and inequality.

Most suspects in such cases had become destitute as a result of illness or unemployment, and all their attempts to either secure a job or social welfare had failed. Professor Zhu Li noted that the ineffective and limited legal channels through which individuals might air and resolve their problems can easily transform depression into extreme resentment, which can, in extreme cases, lead to a complete psychological breakdown.

To many, then, creating “big trouble” is the only way to call attention to their plight. This, as Zhu told NewsChina, has created a dangerous sub-culture in society that sees a refusal to conform to ethical and moral norms and a willingness to take extreme action for personal gain as something to be admired. The only solution, it is almost unanimously agreed, is to reinforce the rule of law to a degree that would allow the desperate and the destitute to seek help.

“Unequal opportunities and a wealth gap created by corruption, institutionalized discrimination and an ineffective legal framework is the most dangerous threat to social stability and the root of social division,” said Zhu. 

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