In effort to assert control, China orders tighter school security after attacks on children

BEIJING (AP) — When classes resume in China this week, police officers and vans will be stationed outside school gates in the bustling southwestern city of Chongqing while newly installed video surveillance and intruder alarms will be keeping watch over classrooms in eastern Fujian. Guards patrolling school premises in southeastern Jiangxi will carry police batons and pepper spray.

Chinese authorities have ordered school security to be tightened nationwide, part of the government's effort to assert control and calm public fears after three back-to-back attacks on schools last week that left a few dozen children injured. The measures start on Tuesday when schools reopen after a three-day public holiday.

The latest attack occurred on Friday, when a farmer used a motorcycle to break down the gate of a primary school in the eastern city of Weifang and struck five students with a hammer. He then poured gasoline over his body and burned to death, reports said.

The Ministry of Public Security issued an emergency notice to police departments around the country to strengthen patrols in and around schools at the beginning and end of the school day and to inspect small hotels, Internet cafes and "recreational sites" next to schools. It also urged investigations to be quickly handled and attackers severely punished.

Police should "strive to provide our students and children with an environment of strong security and public order to grow up in," said the Saturday notice.

The rollout of measures underscores the government's desire to position itself as being in command in a situation that has given rise to worries about the safety of the country's schools and the ability of China's massive security apparatus to protect the vulnerable. To help assuage fears, domestic media reports on Sunday focussed mostly on how various places were securing their schools.

Public safety scandals in which children are the main victims have been a focal point of public anger in recent years, from the deaths of 5,000 students crushed by shoddily built schools in a 2008 earthquake to a tainted milk scandal that sickened 300,000 babies months later. Since late last year, more than 3,000 children have suffered from lead poisoning due to polluting factories built near villages.

These school attacks have prompted some angry comments by Internet users criticizing police inadequacy and the social inequality that they believe feeds the violence, but otherwise have not caused a massive public outcry. This could be due to state media playing down Friday's attack either on concern that it could encourage copycat acts or possibly to avoid overshadowing the World Expo in Shanghai which opened this weekend.

One eyewitness said police were slow in responding to Thursday's attack in the eastern city of Taixing, where a 47-year-old unemployed man armed with an 8-inch (20-centimeter) knife wounded 29 kindergarten students — five of them seriously — plus two teachers and a security guard.

"Even after 45 minutes the police still hadn't arrived yet," a Taixing resident named Ling Jusheng said.

But an official surnamed Liu at the local police bureau said within eight minutes of receiving a call from the public, police had nabbed the attacker inside the kindergarten.

Still, unhappiness with the government's response was clear as hundreds of parents protested Friday outside a local hospital in Taixing. On Sunday, Xin Feng, a parent of one of the four children still in intensive care, said: "These measures to strengthen the security of schools should have been implemented earlier, before the attack happened."

Xin said his 4-year-old boy was still unable to speak after the Thursday attack hurt his respiratory tract. "He looks so scared, he won't let go of our hands when we're with him."

Some observers say the government's security approach does little to address the underlying social problems that many believe helped drive seemingly ordinary folk to commit such horrific acts of violence, such as social injustice and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

"Schools should not be like prisons. Tight security is not the final way to solve the issue," said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Beijing-based human rights lawyer. "If a person is unable to lodge complaints or vent their anger through normal channels, that could finally lead to the breakout of such kinds of cases."

In the first of the three attacks, 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 attacker had been on sick leave from another school since 2006, reportedly for mental health problems.