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The weapon of choice in China’s train station attack was sadly no surprise

A man injured in an attack on a Chinese train station rests in a hospital in Kunming.
By Lily Kuo
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Violence by knife-wielding assailants has been a problem in China for years, well before the attack this weekend in Kunming that killed at least 29 and injured over 100 people. The details of the latest incident are graphic: witnesses said they saw people laying in puddles of blood. Others said that police yelled at the assailants, “Come stab me!” in attempt to ward them away from unarmed citizens.

It’s unclear exactly how many knife attacks have taken place in China over the years, but the almost regular media reports of the attacks suggest that efforts to regulate the purchase of knives or punish offenders haven’t been successful. As we’ve pointed out, the fact that China bans private ownership of guns doesn’t make its citizens immune to violent mass attacks. (Also, guns are still smuggled into China: in 2012, police confiscated 160,000 firearms at hundreds of illegal smuggling sites.)

Most recently, targets for these knife attacks have included schools and shopping centers. Last June, knife-wielding assailants killed nine policemen and 17 civilians at a police station in Lukqun Township in Xinjiang.

Sina Weibo
A photo of one of the weapons used during the Kunming attack circulated Chinese social media over the weekend.

Officials like to point out that China’s official crime rate is among the lowest in the world: 0.8 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to 1.14 in Japan, a country known for having little crime, or 1.27 in Switzerland. However, widely falsified local government statistics make it difficult to take those numbers at face value.

Officials have implemented intermittent bans on the sale of knives ahead of important events, like the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2009. In 2008, before the Beijing Olympics, officials required that all citizens must register with their national identity cards before buying potentially deadly knives like daggers and knives with blades over 22 cm (8.6 inches) long, or over 15 cm long and with a blade angle of less than 60 degrees—a measure that isn’t well-enforced (link in Chinese) at small stores. Supermarkets have been vaguely instructed not to sell knives to people with “unusual and abnormal behavior.” Other measures include teaching teachers and students self-defense and kung fu.

Not surprisingly, these patchwork attempts at knife control haven’t stopped new incidents. In July of 2013, a mentally ill man stabbed four people, leaving a two-year-old boy dead, outside of a Carrefour shop in Beijing with a knife he purchased from the store. The following month, another man stabbed several passengers on a bus in Henan province, killing three, including a 10-month old baby and a 10-year-old child.

Moreover, the penalty for carrying illegal knives is light, punishable with detention of up to 15 days or a fine of up to 200 yuan (paywall), or about $32. Even harsh sentences haven’t dissuaded assailants. Following the execution of a 42-year-old man who killed eight children with a knife in 2010, three other separate knife attacks occurred within three days.

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