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Murders on campus prompt soul-searching in China
By Zhang Qian

Apostgraduate medical student at Shanghai's elite Fudan University has been charged with killing his roommate by poisoning the water dispenser in their dormitory.

An undergraduate at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics is accused of stabbing his roommate to death in their dormitory.

The two murders last month astonished many Chinese and caused a storm of conjecture about what could possibility trigger such apparent hatred among college students and roommates. The cases are generating heated discussion about what's wrong with young people, education and society.

These are only a few of a rising number of campus violence, including murder.

In China, university education is viewed essential to climbing the social and professional ladder. College life also tends to be idealized and seen as a happy period.

Education is traditionally revered, and people are shocked when a person with higher education, a supposedly "educated" person, commits a terrible crime.

In the drive for higher education leading to lucrative jobs, an increasing number of people online and in newspapers nationwide ask the question, "what's happened to moral education? Do universities deliver knowledge without ethics?"

Surprisingly, academic competition, rivalry over a young woman and jealousy were all ruled out in the two sensational deaths.

Police in both cases announced that the real motivation was anger over trifles. Shanghai police called the motive was "everyday trivia."

Police said the stabbing was caused by a quarrel when the victim knocked on the locked dorm door and his roommate, engrossed in a video game, refused to let him in. Later a furious argument erupted and the gamer apparently grabbed a fruit knife.

In the poisoning case at Fudan, the cause was not specified by police. Internet users investigated the accused killer's Sina weibo microblog, concluding that he was driven by the accumulation of minor daily irritations. Some said the last straw was a dispute over sharing water fees.

Campus tragedies

The college campus, once a supposedly secure and carefree place contributing to life-long friendships, is no longer perceived as being so friendly. That small daily annoyances could lead to murder is difficult to grasp.

The sarcastic saying, "Thank you, roomy, for sparing my life," has spread widely online.

This is not the first time campus murders have made headlines in China.

The first widely reported and still talked-about case was in 1994 when Zhu Ling of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghu University was poisoned with thallium and left paralyzed. Her roommate was a named suspect, but no charges were brought. The motive was thought to be jealousy over the victim's beauty and academic success.

In 2004 Ma Jiajue at Yunnan University killed four roommates by bludgeoning them with a hammer because he thought that they looked down upon him.

Thallium-poisoning cases happened again in 1997 and 2007 at the prestigious Peking University and at the China University of Mining and Technology. Victims and perpetrators lived under the same roof.

On April 17, a student at Shazhou Professional Institute of Technology in Jiangsu Province allegedly stabbed a classmate in a fit of exasperation. The victim survived.

On April 10, a graduate of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics allegedly robbed a local bank. News reports said he was pressured at work and dumped by his girlfriend. This was yet another case of a highly educated person posing a threat to public safety.

In another vivid example of potentially lethal violence, a graduate student in veterinary medicine in Wuhan, Hubei Province, was sentenced yesterday to one year in prison and fined 3,000 yuan (US$486) for putting tranquilizers in the drinking cups of students in a library last October.

The reason: He wanted to steal their money. When they passed out, he stole several hundred yuan.

The violence is generally attributed to spoiled only-children who spend so much of their lives studying for good test scores that they are unable to handle daily stress, adapt, share, compromise and get along with others.

Inability to handle emotions is the major problem of young college students who become violent, says Professor Zhang Qi, associate director of the psychological counseling center of East China Normal University. Students, who have often gotten their own way over the years, have trouble identifying what they really need and the right way to satisfy that need, he says.

"Knowing the need, but not the right way to satisfy it may cause problems, and ignorance about real needs is even more dangerous since it's impossible for them to figure out the right way to satisfy them.

"Impulsive, uncontrolled behavior is very likely with these people, and some actions are incredible to most ordinary people," he says.

Stress makes it worse.


Poor impulse control is a problem for many only-children, but when university students and graduates commit violence, people are particularly disturbed. There's an assumption, clearly unfounded, that well-educated people must also be psychologically sound.

That assumption is being reexamined.

More than 90 percent of university students have been bothered by psychological problems, according to a self-reporting online mental health survey. It was carried out by China Campus Magazine and www.chinacampus.org from 2010-2011. About 10,000 university students participated.

In the survey, 27 percent of university students said they were often bothered by mental confusion, 66 percent said they were occasionally bothered, while only 2 percent said they were never bothered by psychological issues. The remainder said they never thought about it.

Pressure from interpersonal interactions, pressure to excel and find work, poor self-discipline, and romantic issues are the big four issues for university students.

Other problems include confusion over career choice, academic pressure, economic difficulties and problems adapting to campus life after living at home.

How the students cope with the pressure and problems determines whether they can work out their psychological puzzles. And how they control and manage their emotions determines whether they will pose threats to themselves or others.

Experts point to extreme cases of students with a family history of violence or psychiatric problems, or who grow up in a bad environment.

The family is crucial in determining how a young person will handle interpersonal relations, according to Professor Shen Yongqiang, director of the psychological counseling center at Shanghai Normal University.

How parents deal with each other, their child and other people - especially how they resolve conflicts - is a powerful model for children who often replicate parents' behavior. If children see their parents listen, compromise, share and show concern for others, they may behave similarly with their own issues.

Shen has seen primary and middle school children with what he calls "borderline personality disorder" characterized by unstable emotions and impulsive behavior. Intervention is difficult, since they have been following family behavior for many years and see no need to change.

Part of the problem is the nature of high-pressure education that is repetitive, test-oriented and highly competitive, says Professor Zhang of East Normal University.

Utilitarian, specialized training, rather than "comprehensive humanistic education" has dominated higher education for decades, turning out highly educated graduates who are masters in a given field but not developed as well-rounded human beings.

"I naturally see psychologically defective students today since psychological education has been neglected for so long," says Zhang. "How can you expect a bumper harvest if you have never planted the seeds" of ethical and humane behavior?

Zhang says he hopes the spate of extreme cases can generate public awareness of the need for better education.

There's no quick fix and inserting ethics or moral values education is not easy, according to Ni Minjing, an official with the Basic Education Department of Shanghai Education Committee.

Lessons or lectures on psychology and ethics are emphasized when especially negative cases make headlines, but these ad hoc classes have limited impact. In general the grade school system is supposed to convey the importance of sharing, respect for others, patriotism and other values.

"Certainly family education in values and school education - or lack thereof - share some responsibility in individual problem cases, but pressure in a fast-paced society is also part of the problem," Ni says.

In fact, most middle schools in Shanghai have psychological counselors, but few students seek help.

The survey by China Campus magazine also indicates that 85 percent of university respondents have never seen a psychologist and 38 percent are unlikely to tell anyone if they have problems or depression.

Heavy schoolwork demands in primary and middle school create a lot of pressure and deprive most children of the chance for team sports and group activities that help them socialize and learn about sharing.

"Hobbies like singing or painting, which are useless in most parents' eyes, can be very useful channels for children to release psychological pressure," says Ni. "A basketball match can work better in building healthy relationships than dogmatic psychology lectures."

Professor Zhang of East Normal University says the system and competitive society won't change overnight, but students can be made aware of the importance of good psychological health and can help themselves cope with frustration, pressure and new environments.

"We can start by changing ourselves," says Zhang.

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