China's Anger Management Problem

SHANGHAI -- Last Thursday, the day after a massive chemical explosion killed dozens and injured hundreds in Tianjin, a port city half an hour away by high-speed train from Beijing, CNN published a video of their correspondent here being swarmed outside of a hospital by friends and family members of those injured desperate to receive any sort of attention or help for an ordeal in which most, likely, feel helpless.

During the video, the journalist is suddenly accosted by a group of people outside the hospital. They are enraged. He tries to get away but is grabbed. The video, which is a live shot with another anchor during a morning news program, is abruptly cut short.

Earlier this week, while I was on a trip to Dali, a picturesque city in southern China, two men got out of their van and dragged a female security guard from her post after she refused to open the gate to the apartment complex for them without knowing first which villa they were going to visit. The fight happened as I was leaving the complex for dinner nearby. I screamed for help.

It was a disturbing scene.

Both men cornered her, pushed her to the ground and began kicking her. One, the short skinny one, rolled up his sleeve and was about to punch her in the face before another guard stepped in. Still, they did not stop, the altercation dragging on for at least a dozen minutes or more.

I later recounted the incident to a friend, a young Chinese woman.

"It's China," she said, nonchalantly. "Things like that happen sometimes."

Sometimes is an understatement.

Chinese society is a society with a strong undercurrent of rage, and when it surfaces, it erupts violently. The reasons for eruptions can be as trivial as an argument over the price of vegetables. Someone cutting in line. A parking ticket. Or, over far more serious circumstances, such as families or individuals who feel disenfranchised by the government or by companies that value profit over the safety of the employees who work for them.

Over the 7 years that I have lived here, I have occasionally noticed the rage, mostly from videos posted online of, say, passengers screaming at or physically harassing airline employees over delayed flights or vendors beaten by police for having their carts in the wrong place on the street.

Several years ago, I personally encountered the rage for the first time while sitting with a Chinese friend at a restaurant near my apartment. Staff had asked us to pay the bill before we had received any food. When my friend insisted several times that we would pay as soon as we had finished, and that we might want to order something else, a male manager came out, grabbed my friend by his collar, drug him out of his chair and began punching him and kicking him. Other customers just watched. I felt helpless and obviously afraid. Eventually the police came. The tension died down. Life went on.

Then there was the time, at a shopping center across from my apartment, a woman knocked a parking garage attendant down on the street with her car after he told her the lot was full. She proceeded to get out of her car and scream at him while he was still on the ground, half covered by the front of her vehicle. A crowd gathered around. No one helping the individual on the concrete, likely out of fear that somehow any assistance might be result in some sort of implication of involvement.

And most disturbingly, there was the day I walked past a store near where I live and saw a woman inside, her face, the floor, tables, covered in blood. As for what happened then, I do not know. But such scenes are not uncommon and are deeply troubling.

"Chinese people are very nice," an acquaintance from Shanghai said in response to my comment one day over dinner that I thought society here was filled with pent up anger.

I do not disagree with her. Since I've been here, I have had countless individuals go out of their way to help me. This is important to point out.

But, it is not the point.

Government propaganda paints China as a harmonious society. But, in reality, over the past century or more, this has been a society defined by struggle. Whether it be the Great Leap Forward, when untold numbers starved to death, or the Cultural Revolution, when families turned on each other, children sometimes humiliating, beating, or, in the most horrific cases, watching their parents be murdered for allegedly being traitors to the government.

Is struggle, anger, desperation something that is hardwired here? Perhaps. Either way, what is happening now appears to be a modern-day reincarnation of the past. While more dispersed, and not a mass social movement as before, China's new anger manifests itself against a backdrop of gaping social inequality, the increasing scarcity of resources, a government, riddled with corruption, that many are losing faith in (even though many will not publicly ridicule those in power), devastating environmental problems and now, mostly recently, an economy that is flirting with recession.

This is a highly pressurized place.

The tension is tangible and contagious. Personally, I have had outbursts of rage here that have never happened outside of Chinese borders. Towards taxi drivers. Landlords. Cashiers. When the tension passes, I stop and wonder where it came from.

The only answer I can find is that it emanates from a society that is becoming increasingly disharmonious.