“Left-Behind Youth” Murder Spurs Reflection on “Teaching Hatred”

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The murder of a 13-year-old boy, allegedly at the hands of three classmates, has shocked China and set off a social media frenzy. The boy, identified only as Wang by police, was allegedly murdered by classmates in a village on the outskirts of Handan, Hebei. The victim’s family’s lawyer said the boy had been subjected to long-term bullying by the three children detained for the murder. All four are reportedly “left-behind children,” minors living alone or with relatives in rural areas while their parents work elsewhere. At The Associated Press, Dake Kang reported on the killing

Wang’s relatives and their attorney said in interviews with Chinese media and in posts on social media that the boy had long been a victim of bullying, and was forced to give money to one of his classmates before he was killed. They said police identified the suspected killers after reviewing the surveillance footage and questioning the classmates.

“He was beaten alive and his body was disfigured beyond recognition,” Wang’s father wrote on Douyin, a Chinese social media platform. “I hope the government will be fair, open and just, punish them severely, and that the killers will pay with their lives!”

[…] Zhang [Dongshuo, a defense attorney in Beijing unaffiliated with the case,] added that the lack of parental guidance for “left behind” children has been a longstanding social issue, but that the question of how they should be raised has not been fully resolved.

“Many people think schools and the government should take responsibility for children’s education, but that means if the relevant government departments and schools don’t educate them effectively, then it’s highly likely this minor is left in an educational vacuum,” he said. [Source]

Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping, an expert on rural Chinese society, published a WeChat post searching for answers on the provenance of the youths’ violence. In Sun’s essay, he relayed two stories of the continued existence of humanity in wartime: the first of a soldier who found himself unable to fire on a urinating enemy, and the other of a United States soldier tormented to an early grave by his accidental killing of an Afghan family who had been used as human shields by the Taliban. Sun then asked a series of questions asking how such depravity could be possible amongst schoolchildren. Perhaps to avoid censorship (a recent article of his on the state of the economy was deleted from WeChat) or perhaps to demonstrate his profound shock at the violence, Sun left his own questions unanswered: 

I want to ask one question: How did these three three youths become so violent? How, after committing a brutal murder, were they able to calmly attend class as if everything was normal?

[…] I don’t know how you feel after reading those two stories. Readers, please note that these stories occurred on the battlefield. We all know what that implies—a life-or-death scenario. Yet even under circumstances like that, we can still glimpse a flicker of humanity. 

[…] As such, must we continue to endlessly debate nature versus nurture? I want to ask one question: How did these three three youths become so violent? Do they have similar concepts [of humanity] in their minds? If so, what are they? When it comes to extinguishing the life of another human being, what thoughts run through their minds? Where did that stuff in their heads come from? What ideas have their minds been filled with, and what ideas have been erased? [Chinese]

Other commenters were willing to answer Sun’s questions for him. In a response essay posted by WeChat account “The Stray Thoughts of Old Xiao” (老萧杂说, Lǎo Xiāo záshuō), the author argued that the increasing prevalence of teaching anti-Japanese hatred in schools has instilled a generation of children with a capacity for hate that is liable to be randomly directed at the world around them. Citing a notorious high school re-enactment of the Shinzo Abe assassination and alluding to recent anti-Japanese sentiment channeled against a bottled water company, Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi, and a shopping mall in Nanjing, “Old Xiao” argued that “teaching hatred” has become all too prevalent in Chinese society:

Although they may not have played games like re-enacting Shinzo Abe’s assassination with a fake gun or carrying dynamite on their backs (these things actually happened on a few campuses), I’d venture to guess they did not receive an education centered on teaching love instead of enmity, compassion instead of brutality, and tolerance instead of bigotry. 

Children taught hatred and exposed to hateful ideas are inevitably uneasy about the world around them. They are unable to genuinely trust those around them and, when grown, will have trouble working with and cooperating with others, and will tend to defer to the powerful and tyrannize the weak. 

These past few years, schoolyard bullying has become more extreme, with behavior so cruel as to incite public outrage. It has become impossible not to see the cause as extreme tendencies amplified by “hateful thinking.”

[…] But it’s not only happening in our schoolyards. In adult society, don’t we also hear daily calls to “resist this,” or “boycott that,” or “rid ourselves” of some other thing? That’s the sound of hatred, a high-decibel clamor. 

[…] A friend who is currently in the process of emigrating told me the main reason they decided to leave was that some of the education their child was receiving at school was puzzling and alarming.

Professor Sun Liping is deeply concerned but does not dare to speak, and perhaps it is for precisely this reason. [Chinese]

Another WeChat essayist echoed those sentiments. They pointed to a recent viral video of a young girl emotionally berating her younger brother for being “unpatriotic” due to the boy’s partiality to the wildly popular Japanese manga character Ultraman. The essayist wrote that the sister’s “chilling” behavior towards her younger brother was a worrying reflection of nationalist bullying having been turned inwards. 

Much of the online discussion of the murder in Handan has focused on the plight of “left-behind children.” There are nearly 67 million “left-behind children” in China, according to the 2020 census. They are among China’s most underprivileged groups and have been subject to rampant abuse and violence. In one tragic 2015 case, four siblings left behind by their parents in rural Bijie in Guizhou province committed group suicide. The prolific WeChat blogger “Cicero by the Sea”  (海边的西塞罗, hǎibiān de Xīsāiluó) drew a connection between the violence in this case and a 2015 incident in California in which “parachute kids,” Chinese students living without parents in the United States in order to attend school—a more privileged inverse of the “left-behind children” phenomenon—tortured a classmate in a public park. 

Other debates focused on the appropriate punishment for the alleged killers. In 2020, China lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 12 for those who commit certain violent crimes, including homicide. This may be the first case to go to trial under the new law. Despite numerous social media calls for the alleged killers to be executed, a lawyer interviewed by Chinese state media said that the death penalty was not a possibility in this case due to the fact the accused are all minors.


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