Is China’s Student Violence Problem a Matter of Ethics?

At the same time that Americans watched the unfolding drama of the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the two suspects, China was dealing with a horror of its own. In the span of two days, Chinese news sources reported the murder of Huang Yang, a medical science graduate at Fudan University, and an undergraduate at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and roommates were reported as prime suspects in both killings.

The police also announced that a severely decomposed corpse was found in another dorm room.

According to Liang Pan in The Atlantic, China has been dealing with a resurgent epidemic of college-student-on-college-student murders and violence for the past two decades. The first widely reported case was of Zhu Ling, who was a victim of thallium poisoning which was counteracted in time to save her life but not in time to to prevent the infliction of severe and permanent physical damage that curtailed the career of a once-promising chemistry major. Although Zhu’s roommate was suspected, no arrests were ever made.

Two further thallium attacks followed in 1997 and 2007.

Murders on campus always generate public soul-searching about the moral and ethical dimensions of education in China amid its breakneck speed economic growth. China is one of a few countries with compulsory courses on morality and ethics in its K-12 education. However, such courses are heavy on overgeneralized and politically-charged concepts, but light on practical guidance for educators and students navigating the sea change of social values since China’s market-oriented reform started in 1979. In today’s China pragmatists are often rewarded more than idealists; bystanders more than good Samaritans; and nepotism more than entrepreneurship. The highbrow doctrines in the textbook on morality, which students are made to memorize for exams, become ever more irrelevant to the day-to-day life.

Liang Pan speculates that the higher rates of crime among the young and the promising is due to the gradual unraveling of the Chinese values system in the wake of the economic reforms that launched the country’s capitalist revolution. No longer tied to beliefs held by their parents and ancestors, many students are becoming unmoored and confused about new ethical landscape. Even though China is one of the only countries in the world that makes ethics classes mandatory for all their students, there doesn’t appear to be any sincerity behind the material students are being taught.

Once the state-sponsored education fails to instill moral righteousness in its students, the absence of a robust civil society and an over-arching belief system leaves a rupture in students’ moral education, and for some students, moral standard becomes blurry and arbitrary. Even family teachings, the anchor of a traditional moral education in China, have also been weakened by the side effect of the one-child policy. The only child in the family is more likely to be spoiled by the parents, and hence, less likely to learn about sharing, compassion and commitment.