Reporting from Beijing — All of 110 pounds, security guard Chen Xiu might not pack much heft, but he says no knife-wielding attackers will get past the red iron gate where he watches over an elementary school in downtown Beijing.
"If they come in here, I'm ready to beat them up," said Chen, 49, pumping the air with a bare fist. "You have to be brave to take on criminals."
Despite his bravado, Chen said he was grateful that police were also patrolling the school.
The extra security has been added after a string of attacks against schoolchildren, some as young as 4, who have been stabbed, slashed, bludgeoned and, most recently, set on fire.
There have been five attacks in five provinces in little more than a month, three in the last three days alone. The latest came Friday morning when a 45-year-old farmer crashed through the front gate of an elementary school in Weifang, in the eastern province of Shandong, armed with an iron hammer and a jug of gasoline.
The man, identified as Wang Yonglai, attacked children with the hammer, then tried to immolate himself while clutching two students. Teachers pulled the children away from Wang, who set himself on fire and died of his injuries. Five injured children were reported in stable condition.
Few Chinese have guns, so the attacks have all involved knives, cleavers and other household tools. Many people believe the assailants, mostly unemployed men, were venting their frustration against social inequity, attacking the most defenseless element of society, young children.
Throughout China, school districts were distributing police batons, pepper spray and metal sticks with hooks on the end to subdue attackers with knives.
In Beijing, police have been standing guard the last month in front of schools during the peak hours in the morning and afternoon when children are coming in and out, and on Friday special riot police were ordered to join the patrols. In Changsha, Hunan province, parents are banding together to patrol the schools. A businessman in southern China was reported to have hired a well-known kung fu master to protect his 6-year-old daughter.
Since an attack in late March, 10 people have been killed, dozens injured and millions more terrorized, although the Chinese news media have offered scant reporting on the rampages, trying to avoid public hysteria and to discourage copycats.
"We can't understand why this is happening," said Celine Li, 38, an elementary school teacher in Beijing and mother of a 12-year-old. "You don't know when some crazy person is going to jump out and attack you."
Luke Liu, 28, was part of a crowd milling about at a hospital in Taixing, Jiangsu province, where 32 people were being treated for stab wounds after an attack at a kindergarten Thursday.
"This leaves a deep impression on everybody," he said. "We love our children."
Liu said he believed that the attacker had gone after youngsters because "they can't protect themselves."
The Taixing case involved the youngest victims to date, children as young as 4, some of whom had their throats slashed, and ears and hands nearly severed. None of the children were reported to have died, although five were in critical condition.
One of the attackers, Zheng Minsheng, who stabbed eight pupils to death March 23 in Nanping, Fujian province, was a community health doctor who was unable to afford to buy an apartment and who lost his job. He was executed Wednesday.
Hao Bin, a Beijing psychiatrist affiliated with Peking University, said people should not try to read political motives into the attacks.
"I don't think these people are terrorists," Hao said. "They are a people with psychological problems who weren't able to get the professional help they need."
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau and special correspondent Lauren Hilgers in Shanghai contributed to this report.