Behind China’s Spree Killers; A criminal psychologist explains why so many in China are resorting to senseless violence and what we can do about it

Behind China’s Spree Killers – Economic Observer Online

By Liu Jinsong (刘金松), Xie Liangbin (谢良兵), Chen Zhe (陈哲) and Li Haojie (李浩杰)

Issue 635 , Sept 2, 2013

On Aug 19, a man entered a bus in Anyang, Henan Province and started indiscriminately slashing passengers with a knife. Two were killed and 13 injured. Less than a week later the same thing happened in Chengdu, leaving another four dead and 11 injured.  June saw the deadliest of these random attacks when an arsonist set fire to a bus in Xiamen, leaving 47 dead. In recent years, senseless attacks like these on bystanders seem to have been increasing in frequency. The perpetrators in each case had their own motivations, but what do they all have in common? And what can society do to prevent these attacks?The Economic Observer interviewed Professor Li Meijin (李玫瑾), an experienced criminal psychologist from People’s Public Security University of China.

The Economic Observer:Why are these violent incidents happening so frequently now?

Li Meijin: Such incidents have happened before and I personally think the frequency could increase in the future. Chinese society is in a transition period with many social problems.

The psychological problem of indiscriminate killing often stems from some kind of neurosis. These killers must have gone through loneliness, pain and frustration prior to carrying out their crimes.

These crimes look like individual cases, but we should also recognize the social background associated with them. One of the most important reasons for these cases is abnormal emotions. The causes of abnormal emotions are complicated, but one cause is when an individual encounters frustration in life or has conflicts with others or society as a whole.

So how should the anger generated from this frustration be resolved? I think legal services that address personal conflicts of interest are relatively weak in our society. In other words, the judicial channels at the grassroots level meant to resolve conflicts are not easy to access. Many people only know how to petition, and they can’t get the expected results from higher authorities. Therefore, the mentality of hating people, the government and society can easily appear.

EO: When looking at these violent cases, what do each of the individual perpetrators have in common?

Li: Emotional trauma is the main factor for indiscriminate killing. The “stimulus” for emotional trauma tends to come from people, as opposed to natural biological processes. The pain can come from things like relationships, marriage and economic disputes.

EO: Looking at the incidents that have already happened, do the root causes for the emotional trauma have more to do with social or personal factors?

Li: There are social factors as well as personal physical and psychological reasons. For example, for Chen Shuizong (陈水总), the bus arsonist in Xiamen, it was a social factor causing his sense of frustration [he was denied social security benefits from local authorities] and he wanted revenge on society. Zheng Mingsheng (郑明生), who stabbed eight children to death at a school in Nanping, Fujian Province in 2010, mainly had psychological problems. The two cases in Anyang and Chengdu were both related to personal emotional setbacks. Most of these complex criminals lack family love.

EO: What personal characteristics do these mentally disturbed criminals tend to have?

Li: These people often have a personality defect and aren’t capable of a good sense of self-awareness. Because they lack self-awareness, they’ll more easily encounter setbacks in life. For example, Zheng Mingsheng was a community clinic doctor. When people praised him for having good medical skills, he resigned his clinic job and wanted to be a doctor at a big hospital, which was obviously immature. [He later said his killing spree was motivated by rejection from a girl and being treated unfairly by her wealthy family.]

This is the problem of self-awareness. You can be a good judge of other people but you also need to have an accurate reflection of yourself. Now many people lack this ability, so they’ll make poor judgments and think “I am correct. I am very good. How can you do this to me?”

When people often feel pain from interpersonal relationships and feel others are “bullying them,” they may not have a good understanding of the outside world. They cannot correctly know themselves, and thus, cannot balance the relationship between themselves and the outside world. Individuals with this problem can’t adjust.

EO: If you conducted an analysis on the demographics of these indiscriminate killers, including things like their ages, behavior and life experiences, what kinds of things would stick out?

Li: It’s difficult to do such research since these people’s psychological problems are often associated with their early life experiences. Of these early experiences, lack of family love is most prominent because this leaves them in solitude, silence and unable to express themselves. When they have difficulties with verbal expression, they’ll also encounter obstacles when dealing with people. Meanwhile they can easily misunderstand others.

This violent behavior normally occurs after age 25 because after growing up, people need to deal with the opposite sex, which is more difficult than dealing with parents or same-sex friends. If there’s no place for these emotions to settle and there’s other difficulties in life, that person will feel there’s no point to living in this world.

China’s social transition has also exacerbated many of these issues and hampered individual transitions. Many parents go out to do migrant work and leave children behind in their hometown. These children then grow up in an environment without restrictions, but when they grow a bit older, their parents bring them to cities from villages.

They may suddenly feel that the city is more colorful than their hometown, but they don’t know how to do many things. The huge gap between these two environments often prevents these kinds of people from adapting psychologically. The frustration will increase, and when there are no social resources to address the problem, sometimes that frustration will turn to anger.

EO:So when they encounter setbacks, why do they attack strangers?

Li: People who have this type of criminal psychology complex not only have a character defect, but they all tend to easily get terrified. They cannot endure hardship and cannot bear when other people criticize or reprimand them. While they cannot easily express themselves, they can easily develop a grudge and then willfully vent anger. But when this type of person actually encounters someone stronger than himself, he’ll be terrified. This was illustrated in the Anyang bus attack. When someone resisted the murderer, he became afraid and turned back.

Therefore, those who stab children generally lack courage in front of women, and those who bully women are afraid of men. This type of person usually targets someone who is weaker than himself.

EO: What kinds of preventative measures can society adopt in the face of these increasing public attacks?

Li: Firstly, we should make it easier to access judicial channels. Improving judicial procedures can let individuals have an outlet. We should establish a cheap legal service center in every region. Although there are currently legal aid centers that offer help, they don’t exist as a form of public service.

Legal service centers should be as ubiquitous as shopping malls and be very easy to find. There should be a place people can go to for advice when they don’t know what to do. Can I sue? Who should I sue? This kind of legal service center would be more useful than petitioning bureaus.Secondly, judicial procedures can be further improved. Now many people don’t trust that justice will prevail, so the transparency of courts should be further increased.

EO: What can we do to address the mental disorder aspect of these crimes?

Li: We can enhance character education to reduce the occurrence of these incidents. The problem in China is that we don’t pay attention to fostering character in children before they’re six years old. We only pay attention to intellectual education but ignore character education. You can see that many people in China reach very high positions, but still have a lot of character problems.

EO:What about adults? Their character has already been formed.

Li: My suggestion is to provide public psychological counseling. Legal advice and psychological counseling service centers should become a public service, just like hospitals. I think that if there are such platforms, many issues would be alleviated.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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