Chinese police said Monday that the man who stabbed 23 children in a rural Chinese elementary school just hours before the Newtown, Conn., massacre may have been “influenced” by doomsday predictions.
A belief that the Mayan calendar predicts an apocalypse this Friday, Dec. 21, has gained peculiar currency here. And the knifing spree is the darkest manifestation yet of how end-of-the-world rumors have taken hold in China.
Doomsday rumors, generally lighthearted spoofs, have been especially widespread on the Chinese Internet since the success of the Hollywood blockbuster “2012.” That was the first major American film to portray the Chinese as “good guys,” builders of “arks” that offer salvation to some survivors of a cataclysmic flood. But Chinese authorities, nervous about threats to social stability, have been showing increasing signs of concern about the public's willingness to believe the rumors.
Police and government media are warning people not to be fooled by doomsday-related scams, alleged doomsday cultists have been arrested, and shoppers fearful of coming darkness have bought up all the candles they can find.
Police in Guangshan county, in the central Chinese province of Henan, said they were holding the suspect, Min Yongjun, in Friday’s school stabbings “for further investigation into his motives” and medical history, according to an announcement on the local government’s website.
The police “suspect” that Mr. Min “injured innocent people and children with a knife because he was influenced by doomsday rumors,” the statement added. None of the wounded children died of their injuries.
Chinese are susceptible to doomsday reports, suggests social psychologist Wei Zhizhong, because “scientific knowledge is still not widespread in China. People have abandoned their traditional mystical relationship with nature, but they are still exploring scientific ways of coexisting” with the natural world.
Lost in the transition, says Mr. Wei, a researcher at Wuhan University’s Psychological Research Institute, “some people respond to things like doomsday rumors.”
Last week the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, urged the government to “release timely, authoritative information to avoid some people taking doomsday jokes seriously, which may trigger irrational panic and chaos.”
The media “should not follow the trend of feeding doomsday emotion but should guide the public with rationality,” the paper suggested.
The role of the media
For some observers, though, the Chinese media are poorly placed to influence public opinion since censorship has undermined their authority.
“One reason that rumors prevail is because of the damaged credibility of traditional media,” wrote Liu Xiaocong, a TV producer, in an opinion piece for the English-language edition of Global Times last week. “In countries where the media is regularly subject to restraints imposed from above … people lose faith in it and seize onto stories that haven’t been put through the official filters.”
The People’s Daily published its warning in the wake of reports that in two provinces, shoppers had cleaned local shops out of candles, spooked by reports that the world would be plunged into three days of darkness on Friday.
The Shanghai police issued a caution earlier this month on their Weibo account, similar to a Twitter feed, saying they had received 25 reports in a 24-hour period of people spreading doomsday rumors, apparently as some sort of scam.
“The police warn citizens that 'doomsday' is simply a rumor,” the Weibo post read.
Some are putting the rumors to political use, according to state-run media. The government is cracking down on a group that it says is urging a “decisive battle” against the “Red Dragon” Communist Party, according to the provincial Shaanxi Daily.
Members of the “Almighty God” group, which has been described as a cult by the state media, have been distributing leaflets announcing the end of the world this year, the paper said. Dozens of them have been arrested in different provincial cities, according to official statements.