A Chinese man who hacked to death seven kindergarten students as young as 3-years-old had argued with the school's manager over the property's lease, neighbors said Thursday, offering a possible motive behind the latest in a string of bloody rampages in the nation's schools.
The school's manager and her elderly mother were also killed in the attack Wednesday, which left 11 other children hospitalized. It was the deadliest of five such assaults on schools in less than two months, and occurred despite heightened security countrywide, with gates and cameras installed at some schools and additional police and guards posted at entrances.
The attacks have raised concerns about the rising emotional stress in China's high-pressure, rapidly changing society, along with a dire lack of infrastructure to diagnose and treat severe mental illness.
On Thursday, police cordoned off the private Shengshui Temple Kindergarten, a tumble-down two-story building on the rural outskirts of Hanzhong, an industrial city of nearly 4 million people.
A rusty merry-go-round stood silently in its inner courtyard while dozens of officers circulated through the streets of the surrounding farming villagers to keep an eye out for unrest.
Familiar to victims?
The attacker who charged into the kindergarten Wednesday and hacked at his victims with a cleaver was also a familiar figure to them, according to doctors and residents. The killer, 48-year-old Wu Huanming, committed suicide at home following the attack.
Neighbors said Wu Huanming had leased his house to teacher and school administrator Wu Hongying for the kindergarten, but there was a dispute over the rent. He then demanded the property back, but Wu Hongying asked to hold onto it until the children's summer vacation.
Zhen Xiulan, a 71-year-old villager who lives about 200 yards from the school, said Wu was known to be quiet and mild.
"This kid was very honest and didn't talk much. He had a very soft and gentle personality and didn't have mental problems that we knew of," said Zhen, who claimed to have known Wu his entire life.
"None of us would ever have imagined he would do something so terrible," Zhen said.
She said Wu had two children as well as two younger brothers.
Zhen, who was at home when the attacks happened, said the bodies of the children had massive head gashes, while the teacher killed had been almost decapitated.
'My heart went cold'
Six of the most badly wounded children — four boys and two girls between the ages of 3 and 6-1/2 — were being treated at the 3201 Hospital in Hanzhong and were in stable condition in intensive care with head wounds, said Zhao Fangling, the vice director of the hospital. The other five survivors were being treated at a separate hospital.
"We've never seen anything like this before, never," Zhao said. "When we saw the mothers in pain who had lost their children, all of us were in tears," said Zhao, visibly shaken.
The director of the hospital, Cui Xiangbin, said the killer was known to the children.
"The children all knew him, they saw him every day. I can't describe how it made me feel when I heard about the scene, I felt terrified and my heart went cold," Cui said.
As is common in such tragedies, relatives of victims were being kept away from the media, while police officers followed journalists, stopping and removing them from some areas and demanding identification. At least one television crew was forcibly ejected from its hotel.
The carnage started as class was beginning Wednesday, the local government said.
It said Wu entered the kindergarten and killed Wu Hongying and a student on the spot, then began hacking at the 18 others, according to a city government statement.
Six students and Wu Hongying's 80-year-old mother died later in the hospital of their wounds, it said. None of the 11 hospitalized survivors was in immediate danger.
Wu is a common Chinese surname, and it wasn't clear if the assailant and administrator were related.
Ignoring mental illness
Sociologists say the recent attacks that have left 17 dead and scores wounded reflect the tragic consequences of ignoring mental illness and rising stress resulting from huge social inequalities in China's fast-changing society. A recent study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that less than 10 percent of 173 million Chinese adults believed to suffer from mental illness had ever received professional help.
"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 attackers in recent cases have all been men in their 30s or 40s, most of them out of work. Knives and hammers are the preferred weapons — guns are tightly controlled in China and obtaining them virtually impossible.
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.