Asia-Pacific / Child Abuse

Covering Up Child Abuse in China

November in China was turbulent. Following the anger incited by juvenile abuse in a day care center in Shanghai, people were again unsettled on Friday, November 24th by similar reports from the RYB (Red Yellow Blue) Education Kindergarten in Xintiandi, Beijing. Reports claim that three-year-olds in one class were fed white pills, needle punctures were found on their arms, and two boys and one girl were forced to stand naked facing a wall in punishment. A twenty-two-year-old female teacher (surnamed Liu), suspected for the abuse, has been detained by Beijing police.

RYB Education is one of China’s most well-known preschool institutions, which accepts children from ages two to six. The school has more than 1,000 kindergarten campuses and play-and-learn centers in 300 cities and towns throughout China. Its stock went public this past September in the New York Stock Exchange. With the exposure and heated discussion of the abuse allegations, the company’s stock plunged nearly forty percent after the story broke. That same day, RYB announced its plan to save the value of its stock by buying back fifty million dollars of its own shares. This move resulted in public criticism for using the money to retrieve its financial losses instead of making reparations for its wrongdoing.

Unlike those in the US, China’s private schools are usually the last resort for education as the difficulty of getting into preferred public schools rapidly increases. Private preschools generally feature high tuition fees and less-qualified teachers. Despite government’s heavy investment in education, preschool education receives only a small portion. Even after China passed comprehensive education guidelines aiming to get more children enrolled in kindergarten—resulting in a jump from under one percent of the budget in 2009 to about four percent in 2010—the government budget for early-childhood education is still around a pitiful eight percent. (according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, UNESCO, 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, and a report from China’s Ministry of Education) In fact, a huge gap exists between the labor market’s demand for qualified kindergarten teachers and the supply, resulting in a shortage. From the same report, we see that while the global average preschool student-teacher ratio is 17:1, China only reached 21:1 in 2015. The shortage of teachers means each teacher has a larger workload and is responsible for more children, which easily, if not inevitably, leads to negligence.

This is not the first time that allegations of abuse have been made against China’s kindergartens. In December 2016, two teachers from Ruian Experimental Kindergarten were detained by police after parents posted audio recording online. Their abuse included beating, hurting children with needles, punishing a child by smearing Tiger Balm near his eyes, and locking a child in the bathroom. In early November, two videos circulated around social media showing several female teachers mistreating toddlers at a Shanghai local day care center, which belongs to Ctrip, the country’s leading online travel agency. Even in April 2017, RYB Education suspended the headmaster and two teachers at another branch in Beijing after a video of a teacher kicking children leaked online.

While the surging child abuse issues jump into the masses’ horizon, independent artists have actually been paying attention to the problem for a long time. Movies like The Crucible (Korea; 2013), Spotlight (US; 2015), and Angels Wear White (China; 2017) all reflect the child sexual abuse cases. According to Vivian Qu, the director of Angels Wear White, the topics of juvenile sexual abuse are widely discussed in the U.S. Unfortunately, in eastern countries, people often stigmatize problems related to sex and gender as debauched, irrelevant, unspeakable, and thus marginalize such issues collectively. Parents’ ignorance and society’s unanimous silence on the issue lead to lack of sexual education for children. After being abused or sexually harassed, children cannot accurately inform their parents of the problem, and their wavering responses make the parents’ accusations hardly convincing.

With the RYB abuse case boiling feverishly and building public disappointment in the expansive darkness in education, the government and the RYB kindergarten quickly took action. The liable kindergarten closed its doors to the inquiries of angry parents. Blame falls on the twenty-two-year-old teacher, who is now detained while RYB Education cast off its responsibility by claiming that it was “extremely shocked and distressed.”

Only five days later, however, a preliminary investigation by Chaoyang District dismissed parents’ allegation on the kindergarten abuse as untrue. The government issued a ban on more publications covering the issue. The security video, which was in the police’s hands and never open to the public, is said to not contain any abuse evidence in the 113 hours of recorded footage. Children were not found with injuries after medical examinations. The police judged that the online circulation of the details of the abuse allegations against the RYB was fabricated by Liu and Li—the parents who made the initial accusations. Liu was detained for disturbing public order and Li issued a public apology on his personal Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter). Gou, a parent of a child in the RYB kindergarten, admitted that his child had not been fed pills and the video was in fact faked by using leading questions to coax the child, which was then shared and published online by Liu, the reporter who brought the story to the media’s attention. Zhao, a mother who told reporters that her 3-year-old daughter said she was injected with a brown liquid by a teacher and made to strip along with other children before being “examined” by a naked adult male stranger, has now apologized for her irresponsible remarks. Up until now, many previous posts on social media have been coercively deleted and hardly any follow-up reports can be found on Chinese websites.

In response to public outrage and parents’ desperation, the government is not thinking about the fundamental causes underlying the abuse allegations. The rapid, uncontrolled development of the education industry expands the gap between the demand and supply of teachers. Laws and regulations in China are too vague and relaxed on child abuse and molestation. People have not put enough attention on the boundary of proper behavior and cultivated self-restraint. Without addressing these three problems, similar cases will only continue to emerge and trouble the lives of more children in the future.

While China may forbid maliciously fabricated stories, it is unwise for the country to stop at this level of superficial coverage or intentionally deter people from finding out the truth. A mature posture should always aim at solving the problem. For this particular RYB case, the following procedures might be useful to refresh the industry. Firstly, increase the payment for teachers. While teachers’ salary in China is usually lingering on the national average salary line, an increase in salary would attract more qualified young people into the field and benign competition would enrich the industry. Secondly, enact harsher and more comprehensive laws and rules for private educational institutions. As individualized educational designs for children increase, standardized regulations should be introduced to ensure the quality of these new-born institutions. Finally, promote sex education. Schools and families should have open discussion on whatever sex-related questions children have in mind. Books and media should provide scientific and objective accounts. Furthermore, care, support, understanding, and if necessary, psychotherapy should be provided for children who have been physically or sexually abused.

What lies behind the improper handling of the issue is not ineptitude but indolence. Even though legislating against child sexual abuse may seem like an impossible task for the Chinese government, it has effectively handled similar crisis with legislation in the past. For instance, in September 2008, Sanlu Group Co., Ltd., a state-owned Chinese dairy company, was found to have adulterated powdered milk with melamine (a chemical additive to increase milk’s protein level), which lead to kidney stones and renal failure among infants, resulting in six infant deaths. Four months later, three of those involved in the scandal were sentenced to death and the company announced bankruptcy.

However, in light of the RYB child abuse case, the government fails to apply the same active willingness to address the recurring problem. While the censorship of further discussion of the RYB child abuse case threatens to erase these concerns from the public mind, we know child abuse will not simply disappear. Without durable, consistent, scientific efforts to eradicate the crime, the molesting shadow of child abuse will continue to trouble generations to come.