Two ghastly attacks on schoolchildren in China and the United States last week are bound by a common thread of deranged social relations and political systems. Far from being one-off tragedies attributable to individual crackpots, the knifing of tiny tots at a primary school in Henan province and the shooting of six-year-olds in an elementary school in the state of Connecticut are manifestations of illnesses inherent in the socio-political structures of the world’s two most powerful nations. These horrific crimes are symptoms of the abnormal arrangements that underpin oppressive orders in China and the US.
Crazed knife attacks on school-going kids have become a sickeningly common phenomena in China in recent years, terrorising communities with the brutality and unpredictability of assailants. In 2010, there was a record number of such assaults that killed 20 and injured more than 50 uncomprehending children. The latest stabbing spree in Henan wounded 22 minors, mocking at new security measures introduced in schools across the country to prevent such repetitive and imitative calamities.
Sadly, not enough introspection and public debate has been allowed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) about the root causes of this diabolic threat to the safety of children. Superficial commentaries after each disturbing act of violence aimed at children tend to focus on the absence of international standards of care for the mentally sick, which allegedly drives some of the more extremely oriented individuals among them to slash children. Abuse of the mentally challenged in state-run asylums is indeed a widespread cancer in China, but it is not a sufficient cause for the creation of so many child-killers.
Better explanations about child-stabbers in China revolve around the notion of “rapid social and economic change” and the tensions it is generating within Chinese society. Modernisation is truly an unsettling process that crowns some winners and dashes the hopes of losers. China’s extraordinary economic growth in the last three decades, especially the vertiginous shift in fortunes it has triggered among different classes and regions, has raised income inequalities to obscene levels. While absolute poverty has been practically banished, the competing frictions of uneven distribution of wealth have exacerbated stark differences in status and hierarchy and broken down the egalitarian societal empathy of the Maoist era.
Under state capitalism, China has 1.3 billion resentments and anxieties about earning one’s keep, inhaling polluted air, consuming infected water, finding affordable housing, holding on to personal property and accessing the best schools and hospitals. What Chinese hyper-modernisation has done is to showcase the “better life” to all citizens but give the access keys only to those who are anointed by the CCP. It is arguable that the ruthless knife-wielding stalkers of children are by-products of a highly unequal society with no safety valve in the form of periodic elections to at least choose one’s own government.
Many Chinese stabbers of kids hold grudges against local party apparatchiks and are disillusioned by failure to obtain redress of grievances by petitioning the Central government in Beijing. By diverting the discussion after each new wave of knife attacks to law and order or mental healthcare, the CCP and its opinion-manufacturing outlets have swept these more entrenched fundamental political problems under the carpet.
In America, there is relatively greater transparency about the presence of a morbid gun culture and its devastating impact. Statistics are thrown about after every fresh violent shooting that the US leads the world in per capita possession of weapons (by the last count, there were 88.8 guns per 100 people), and fervent appeals are made for introducing tougher regulations on their sale. But nothing daring like stringent gun-control laws or confiscation of arms from households happens because of the lobbying clout of the defence industrial complex — a conglomerate of private corporations, Congressmen, government agencies and media houses that confound the public with militarist messaging.
One national-level instance of determined action in the American polity vis-a-vis the menace of gun proliferation occurred in 1994, when the Bill Clinton administration enacted the Federal Assault Weapons Ban thanks to a legislature where the Democratic Party had a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. When the ban reached expiry in 2004, the gun-loving George W. Bush administration and a Congress where both houses had a Republican majority allowed it to lapse, much to the delight of the military industrial complex.
American democracy may be more transparent than Chinese autocracy, but the status quo which permits random weaponised outrages in schools, malls or cinemas is hardly democratic. After a decade of overseas wars, Americans have been bombarded with signals which reinforce historical clichés that weapons are necessary to protect oneself against harm. Filmmaker Michael Moore contends that in a relatively secure country like the US, the only reason some citizens keep buying deadlier guns is due to their stereotypical fear of “people of colour”. The statistics do bear out that whites are twice as likely to own guns as non-whites, revealing not only the politics of the racist Republican Party in opposing gun control but also the ingrained social prejudice which associates African Americans and Hispanics with violent crime.
The libertarian strand in US politics that distrusts the government and glorifies the individual, coupled with the racist conviction that owning a weapon is the only guarantee against non-whites, are the core fears inflated by the gun lobby to keep its cash registers ringing. Until the US builds social capital across racial divisions, even a “post-racial presidency” like that of Obama cannot fix the violent vein that runs through the country.
As mourners grieve in Connecticut and Henan, a familiar despondency is setting in that they will be forgotten soon and that the US and China will “move on” with business as usual. Cynicism about change is basically taking a bow to structural pathologies in the economies, societies and polities of both countries. Only peace movements and collective action can transform violently sick systems where children are regularly maimed to line the pockets of corporations and despots.