(Bloomberg) -- The reaction of Chinese social media users to a spate of recent violent attacks has exposed widespread discontent about the nation’s downturn, as economic pressures mount.

Shanghai police reported a stabbing Wednesday morning in one of the city’s metro stations, which — like other subway lines in major Chinese cities — has security checks at its entrances. The suspect was detained after injuring three people and the case is under investigation, police said in a statement. 

In a country where violence is relatively rare, the incident became a top trending item on social media platform Weibo, garnering some 164 million reads with users speculating on the attacker’s motive. Some suggested the culprit was a stocks investor, a group battered during China’s $7 trillion market meltdown earlier this year.

“The pressure of this economic environment is cascading down to everyone, who may be pushed to the brink by a slight change in circumstances,” one user wrote. “Don’t provoke or bully others; you don’t know where their limits of outbursts are. Don’t let yourself become a victim of the economic climate.”

Another user posted: “When the economy is bad, social problems grow, people are becoming more aggressive.” 

Police didn’t provide details of the culprit’s motive, and it was unclear if the attacks represented a surge in such incidents. But the public reaction underscored growing fears over China’s economic downturn, as a slump deepens in the property market where the bulk of household wealth is stored.

“It’s possible the attackers were themselves suffering from the economic slowdown and such anxiety,” said Hanzhang Liu, an assistant professor of political studies at Pitzer College in California. “But it’s even more likely that people are projecting their own anxiety when trying to understand why these incidents happen.” 

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Protests over the economy, especially the housing crash, have become more frequent and made up 80% of publicly recorded dissent last year, according to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor. Almost a third of office workers saw their salaries fall in that period, according to recruitment platform Zhaopin. 

The Shanghai incident followed similar reports from across China. Four teachers from a US college were stabbed by a local man in the northeastern city of Jilin last week. The chairperson of a political consultative body in a county in Shanxi was killed at the start of June in a dispute over the cleanup of illegally-occupied state housing. In May, two died in another knife attack in a primary school in the southeastern Jiangxi province. 

The Jiangxi attack was viewed more than 390,000 times on Weibo, with one user asking for tougher penalties as “the economy slows down, life becomes more torturing, and crazy people become more frequent.”

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While authorities did not provide details of the motives for the Jiangxi and Shanghai attacks, one of the teachers injured in Jilin told Iowa Public Radio that the attacker was “unemployed and down on his luck,” attributing that information to local police.

China has long touted itself as the world’s safest nation. Authorities have rolled out at least four rounds of “strike hard” anti-crime campaigns since the 1980s. The Public Security Ministry said at a press conference in May that social order had been steadily improving over the past five years, with severe violent crime dropping 10.7% in 2023 compared to 2019. 

That makes rare outbursts of public violence stand out. People across China were outraged two years ago, for example, when video clips appeared online showing men beating female diners at a barbecue restaurant.

Socially Disadvantaged

Chinese authorities are aware of the link between economic changes and rises in violence. The Guangdong Police College analyzed 140 high-profile cases of violent attacks from 2000 to 2021, concluding last year that most of the culprits didn’t have a prior criminal record. 

Instead, China’s rapid economic transformation had put some segments of society at more of a disadvantage, leading them to vent their frustration through violence, according to the research. Due to tight controls of guns and explosives in China, knifing and car-ramming incidents have become more common.

Despite severe crime falling, Chinese authorities listed the prevention of extreme violence as a top priority for law enforcement in a work plan last year. The country is entering a time with a “large amount of social conflict and disputes that are difficult to discover, prevent and handle,” China’s security czar Chen Wenqing stressed in December. 

Mental Health Issues

Beijing has even mobilized ordinary people to help stabilize society. Known as the “Fengqiao experience,” that system aims to get local residents to resolve conflicts at the grassroots level to prevent them from spilling over into broader troubles that bubble up to higher level officials. 

The ruling Communist Party also created a social work department last year to strengthen its grip on community organizations. The low-key body, which now leads the national ombudsman office, vowed to help better coordinate social relationships and resolve conflicts in an article in March. 

Mental health issues that built during China’s three years of Covid isolation, are being compounded by economic pressures including high youth unemployment, said Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who’s also a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.

“Acts of random violence could be seen as expression of pent-up social grievances in a high-pressured society,” she added.

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