An attacker with a cleaver hacked to death seven children and two adults at a kindergarten in northwest China on Wednesday, the latest in a string of savage assaults on the country's schools. Eleven other children were wounded.
The killer, 48-year-old Wu Huanming, returned home after the attack on the outskirts of the city of Hanzhong and committed suicide, the local government reported.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Wu owned the property used by the school and had argued with the school's manager, who was among the victims.
It was the fifth major assault on young students in China since late March and occurred despite increased security at schools countrywide, with gates and security cameras installed at some schools and additional police and guards posted at entrances. It was not clear if security had been beefed up at the school attacked Wednesday.
The latest deaths were sure to fuel speculation about why assailants — usually lone males — are targeting schools.
Sociologists say the recent attacks that have killed 17 and wounded more than five dozen reflect the tragic consequences of ignoring mental illness and rising stress resulting from huge social inequalities in China's fast-changing society.
"The perpetrators have contracted a 'social psychological infectious disease' that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society," said Zhou Xiaozheng of Beijing's Renmin University.
"They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable," Zhou said.
The recent attacks are classic "copycat crimes," the effects of which may be amplified by media coverage, Zhou said.
Limited media coverage
After past attacks, authorities have banned or limited media coverage, and early reports on Wednesday's attack were removed from Chinese websites or moved to less prominent pages. There was no mention of it on state television's national evening news report.
The apparent attempts to play down the assault may indicate fears that coverage inspires other assailants, but authorities may also have wanted to avoid the embarrassing news, especially during the World Expo in Shanghai, a pet government project.
The attack began at about 8:20 a.m., as children were arriving at the private Shengshui Temple Kindergarten in Hanzhong's Nanzheng county, a Hanzhong government statement said. The area is on the city's rural outskirts in a relatively poor part of the country, and images posted on the Internet showed the school, which had only about 20 students, housed in a tumbledown two-story farmhouse.
Wu killed the school's manager, 50-year-old Wu Hongying, and a student on the spot, then hacked at 18 others, the statement and Xinhua said. Six students and Wu Hongying's 80-year-old mother later died in the hospital, the reports said. None of the 11 others hospitalized was in immediate danger, it said.
Wu is a common Chinese surname and it wasn't clear if the assailant and administrator were related.
Citing the police, Xinhua said Wu had rented his house to Wu Hongying for the kindergarten without government approval. He then demanded the property back, but Wu Hongying had asked to hold onto it until the children went on summer vacation.
The ages of the seven children killed were not disclosed, but kindergarten students would typically be 5 years old or younger. Xinhua said they were five boys and two girls.
Problem under control?
State media have steered clear of examining what might be motivating school attackers, preferring to focus on increases in security.
The government has sought to show it has the problem under control, mindful especially of worries among middle-class families who, limited in most cases to one child due to population control policies, invest huge amounts of money and effort to raise their offspring.
Recent scandals in which children have been the main victims have sparked public anger and occasional protests, such as when at least 3,000 children around the country were found to have lead poisoning from polluting factories built too close to villages, and when more than 300,000 infants were sickened by tainted baby milk powder.
The statement from the Hanzhong city government after Wednesday's attack vowed to "leave no stone unturned, learn from the mistakes, and strictly ensure nothing happens like this again."
The city government earlier reported that about 2,000 police officers and security guards had been detailed to patrol public schools, kindergartens and surrounding areas beginning last week. The city in Shaanxi province has a population of nearly 4 million.
Parents and grandparents waiting to pick up children at schools in Beijing and Shanghai said they were reassured by the increased security.
"When we hear about those attacks on children, all parents worry. We don't let the child walk home alone," said Guo Xiumei, 52, waiting to pick up her 7-year-old grandson at Beijing's Yonganli Elementary School. Two police officers and a pair of security guards flanked the downtown school's tall metal gate.
In Shanghai, a father waiting in his car outside the Aiguo Elementary School, where a single uniformed policeman stood watch at the gate, said he would adjust his work schedule to drop off and pick up his daughter.
"Who knows how those people think? They shouldn't take out their dissatisfaction with society on innocent children. It's not fair," said the man, who gave only his surname, Su.
The string of school assaults began with an attack on a primary school in March in the city of Nanping in Fujian province where eight children were slashed to death by a former community clinic doctor with a history of mental health problems. Since then, dozens have been wounded in similar attacks.