The Ruzhou killings are part of a chilling rite of passage endured by modern societies all over the world. Ruzhou was the sixth in a string of deadly attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that began in August, when a schizophrenic janitor at a Beijing kindergarten stabbed 14 children, killing one, according to police. A bus driver in Shandong province was executed earlier this month for slashing 24 kids in September; last month, a teacher in Hunan province was arrested for killing four students and wounding 12; two weeks later a man in Beijing was arrested for killing a six-year-old and stuffing him into the school's washing machine. The violence stalking the land of one-child families is not confined to the lower grades. In April, a college student named Ma Jiajue hacked four classmates to death after an all-night poker game. Ma said he was "too poor to afford shoes" and killed from jealousy.
The number of murders, rapes and batteries committed by juveniles in China is growing faster than 10% a year, says criminologist Pi Yijun of the China Politics and Law University. Stunned parents and authorities are searching for reasons for the surge. Some blame greater individual freedom and the decline of authoritarian control. Others explain it as the result of epochal social change and the loss of moral ballast once supplied by communist ideology.
But criminologists also see something new. China's rapidly expanding media have included a proliferation of tabloid newspapers and reality cop shows. Just as Americans believed violent media images were partly to blame for the 1999 school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, Chinese law-enforcement specialists see a link between the recent rash of killings and the violent messages delivered by newspapers and movies. "It seems that the day after crimes appear in the media, someone will imitate it," says Kang Shuhua, director of the criminology research center at Peking University.
Kang isn't alone in asserting this connection. In the western city of Chengdu, an 18-year-old "continuously improved his skills" in murder by watching China's top-rated reality cop show, "China's No. 1 Criminal Cases," learning not to leave behind clothing fibers and to destroy murder weapons, according to the Tianfu Morning Post. In the same city, a gang of 14-year-old students mimicked the Hong Kong gangster film series Young and Dangerous by robbing people after urinating on their heads and burning them with cigarette butts, according to state-run media.
But the police may have to accept some of the blame. The Ministry of Public Security runs production studios that create some of the country's most popular reality police shows, which have been proliferating so rapidly that government censors in March barred 40% of applications for new programs based on police work. But in part because the censor—the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television—isn't powerful enough to block shows produced by the police, it had to settle for restrictions on those already on the air. The police-produced show "Zero Distance," an organized-crime exposé, is now broadcast after 11 p.m.
In other countries, similar remedies have done little to prevent sporadic school violence. Some Chinese parents appear to be taking matters into their own hands. Beijing Special Protection Security Consulting, which provides bodyguards to rich entrepreneurs, is planning later this month to expand their services to schoolchildren. They are having no problem drumming up new business, says company owner Cui Fengxian. "Our clients have been growing steadily" since the schoolyard killings began in August, he says. Bodyguards, however, can't protect kids from the violence they see on TV.