HANZHONG, China — Children as young as 3 years old were among the victims targeted in an attack at a kindergarten in northwestern China that killed seven toddlers and two adults, a doctor said Thursday.
The attacker who charged into the kindergarten Wednesday and hacked at his victims with a cleaver was also a familiar figure to them, said another doctor. The killer, 48-year-old Wu Huanming, committed suicide at home following the attack.
The assault, which left 11 other children hospitalized, was China's fifth such school rampage 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.
It was not clear if security had been increased at the private Shengshui Temple Kindergartens on the rural outskirts of Hanzhong, an industrial city of nearly 4 million people. Images taken from local TV and posted online portrayed the school, which only had about 20 students, as a tumble-down, two-story farmhouse.
"We've never seen anything like this before, never," said Zhao Fangling, a doctor overseeing care for six of the most seriously wounded survivors at the 3201 Hospital in Hanzhong. The other five survivors were being treated at a separate hospital.
The four boys and two girls under Zhao's care were between the ages of 3 and 6-1/2. He said they were in stable condition in intensive care with head wounds.
"When we saw the mothers in pain who had lost their children, all of us were in tears," said Zhao, himself visibly shaken.
Another hospital official, 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.
The carnage started as class was beginning Wednesday, the local government said.
It said Wu entered the kindergarten and killed school administrator 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.
Citing the police, the official Xinhua News Agency said Wu Huanming had rented his house to Wu Hongying for the kindergarten without government approval. He then demanded the property back, but Wu Hongying had asked to hold onto it until the children went on summer vacation.
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.
"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 recent attacks are classic "copycat crimes," the effects of which may be amplified by media coverage, Zhou said.
Boosting security at schools would provide only a temporary solution unless the root problems of social injustice and economic inequality are addressed, he said.
It's also difficult to protect so many places.
About 500 kindergartens, primary and high schools in Beijing have hired more than 2,000 professional security guards to increase safety, said He Gang, a police officer at the Beijing Public Security Bureau. Thousands more guards are needed for the city's remaining 4,500 kindergartens, primary and high schools, He said.
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.
The Hanzhong city government vowed to "leave no stone unturned, learn from the mistakes, and strictly ensure nothing happens like this again."
The city government said about 2,000 police officers and security guards had been assigned to patrol public schools, kindergartens and surrounding areas beginning last week.
The string of assaults began with an attack on a primary school in March in the city of Nanping, where eight children were slashed to death by a former doctor with a history of mental health problems.
The man convicted for that crime was executed April 28, the same day a 33-year-old former teacher broke into a primary school in the southern city of Leizhou and wounded 15 students and a teacher with a knife.
The following day, in the city of Taixing, a 47-year-old unemployed man with a knife wounded 29 kindergarten students – five seriously – plus two teachers and a security guard.
Hours later, a farmer hit five elementary students with a hammer in the eastern city of Weifang before burning himself to death.