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Censorship Is No Solution to China’s Public Safety Problem

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Censorship Is No Solution to China’s Public Safety Problem

Information about a recent spate of knife attacks has been suppressed, leading to anger and speculation.

Censorship Is No Solution to China’s Public Safety Problem
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

“China is widely acknowledged as one of the safest countries in the world,” a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said during a press conference on Tuesday, in response to an attack in which a Chinese man stabbed a Japanese woman and her child at a bus stop in southeastern Jiangsu Province. The official comment was identical to one made earlier this month in response to another such attack, in which a Chinese man stabbed four Americans in northeastern Jilin Province. In each case, a Chinese passerby was injured while attempting to stop the assault.

On the one hand, the spate of knife attacks has exposed an unsettling reality: China might not be as safe as the Chinese government declares, and the ruling Chinese Communist Party may not be as capable of maintaining social stability as it claims. On the other hand, widespread international attention on these two incidents has obscured another reality: In most cases of random violence in China, the victims are Chinese citizens, not foreign nationals.

My quick search of the Chinese internet found that there have been at least several other incidents in the past month. On May 20, a man in Jiangxi Province killed two elementary school students and injured 10 others using a knife. On May 24, a man in Hubei Province stabbed eight people, including his mother, to death. On June 1, a man in Hebei Province killed three people with a dagger and a sickle on the street. On June 19, a man attacked passengers at a subway station in Shanghai and injured three people.

These are just a few examples picked from China’s stringently censored online space. (In 2023, Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report gave China the world’s worst score for the ninth straight year.) The actual frequency of such random acts of violence could be much higher. 

The Chinese government does not publish statistics on this category of crime specifically, but it claims that overall violent crimes have declined significantly in the past decade. In 2023, the authorities prosecuted just 61,000 people for “serious violent crimes,” in a country of 1.4 billion people. 

Some netizens complained on Chinese social media that their posts about the aforementioned knife attacks were censored. “You control the media, nobody knows anything, as if things never happened. That Jilin incident and now this Suzhou one, if there were no foreign media reporting, there could have been absolutely no information within the [Great Fire] wall,” a netizen wrote.

Also left unclear are the identities and motivations of the attackers, since the government often does not release such information. In the Jilin incident, the opacity and stonewalling have been such that the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, took the unusual step of complaining to the American press about it. “I’m not satisfied that we’ve been given sufficient information as to the motives of the assailant,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal. 

In a country where there is no free press and no space for civil society, an independent investigation is not possible. All that’s left is guesswork. In the attacks against American and Japanese citizens, many observers expressed suspicions that the Chinese government’s ever-intensifying anti-U.S. and anti-Japan propaganda had influenced the assailants. “The authorities have cultivated these nationalists for all these years, and they have now grown to be like this,” a netizen said on the social media platform Weibo. 

Others have speculated that China’s economic woes are breeding social discontent. “The most direct societal reaction to economic downturn is the deterioration of public safety,” a netizen wrote. “The pressure of this economic environment is cascading down to everyone, who may be pushed to the brink by a slight change in circumstances,” wrote another. 

Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor shows that protests over the economy, especially the housing-market collapse, became more widespread in 2023, making up 80 percent of all recorded dissent events. In the first quarter of this year, 60 percent of dissent events were labor protests.

Whatever motives lie behind the stabbings, they point to real flaws in the Chinese government’s heavy-handed rule. Because while frustration, resentment, and anger can be temporarily suppressed using authoritarian methods, they will not stay hidden for long if the underlying grievances and social problems are not addressed. And lone-wolf violence is extremely hard to predict and prevent, even with the world’s most sophisticated system of censorship and surveillance. A truly safe society can only be created under a democratically elected government that is responsive to citizens’ needs and operates with transparency and respect for fundamental rights.