Madmen are attacking the children of China. They're stabbing and bludgeoning kindergartners. On Tuesday, three more children and a teacher were killed at a kindergarten in eastern China.
It's the sixth school assault this year. At least 19 children have died and 58 more have been wounded since March — most of them kindergartners or elementary school students.
The killings have shocked but not surprised many in China, said an expert on Chinese society who just returned from a two-month visit to Beijing. It's all anyone talks about.
"China is a high-pressure cooker right now," said Di Bai, director of Chinese and Asian studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "We condemn these killings, but we also have to understand the hopelessness and frustration."
The frustrations are known as "the three new mountains": Health care, housing and education. All have been privatized, and now are out of reach to most Chinese.
China has 1.3 billion people. Health care, housing and education are attainable only by the .3 billion, said David Finkelstein, director of China studies for CNA, a research institute in Alexandria, Va. "The one billion peasants are the losers," he said. "The cradle-to-grave safety net of communism is gone. What they called their Iron Rice Bowl is cracked."
But why kill children?
"They are the ones who get attention," Di said. "China has a one-child policy for families. There's a lot of investment in that one kid."
One assailant attacked children with a hammer. Another killed seven children, their teacher and their teacher's mother with a cleaver. Most use knives. Guns are almost impossible to get in China.
Schools have armed themselves with pepper sprays and long poles with hooks on the end.
Police are authorized to shoot to kill the attackers. Courts briskly execute them. One execution was immediately followed by another attack.
Most act alone, though Tuesday's rampage might have involved two or three men. They give different reasons for killing, but none explain why they targeted small children.
One was previously diagnosed as schizophrenic.
One was a jilted lover.
One had quarreled with a boy's parents.
One said he was venting his anger against society.
One was a farmer with a hammer. He poured gasoline on himself and a child. The child escaped, and the farmer burned himself to death.
Tuesday's attack occurred in a suburb of Zibo in Shandong Province. As with previous attacks, the government blacked out most news reports. Chinese newspapers have been ordered to keep such stories off their front pages. Some details slipped out in blogs.
Several men were said to have entered the school in the afternoon while guards were on break. They stabbed two teachers before attacking the children. Blogs indicated the teachers were trying to shield the kindergartners, and there were many other nonfatal casualties.
One arrest was reported. The suspect was said to be a self-employed 26-year-old with a 24-inch knife. He might have posed as a parent. Motive was unknown.
The phenomenon started in 2004. A schizophrenic kindergarten gatekeeper fatally stabbed one child and slashed 14 others. Three months later, a 21-year-old broke into a high school dormitory and stabbed nine boys to death. That attacker tried to commit suicide. He was executed instead.
The attacks continued sporadically year after year, until March 2010, when they accelerated.
All kinds of reasons have been posited. The killers are copy cats. They are driven by the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots.
Or the killers are just plain crazy. China has 173 million mentally ill people, according to a study done this year. Only 15 million get medical care.
Di, the Drew University professor, says it all boils down a pervasive sense of meaninglessness spreading among China's masses.
"The president of China," said Finkelstein, "must wake up nights in a cold sweat."
Material from numerous news agencies was used in this story, including information from the Associated Press and the New York Times. John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or 727-892-2258.