BEIJING — On March 25th, Global Times, a state-run newspaper, reported that a kindergarten teacher in Hebei province had been forcing pupils who misbehaved to drink their own urine as a punishment. The accused teacher has denied the reports, which are only the most recent in a series of allegations of child abuse at Chinese schools. Microbloggers are incensed.
In one of the most widely discussed cases, in October 2012 Lin Junyan, a mother in the city of Wenling, in Zhejiang, found a photograph online of her five-year old son’s kindergarten teacher picking up the boy by his ears. The teacher looks like she is enjoying his pain as he screams.
Other photographs, apparently from the same kindergarten, show children in stress positions or with their mouths taped shut. Yan Yanhong, a 20-year-old teacher, was vilified by the public for having carried out the abuse. She defended herself to local media by saying they were all in “fun”. Other images of abuse have been caught on film, aired on local-news programmes and then spread around the internet.
In 2005 the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-controlled body, issued a report on child abuse that was sponsored by UNICEF. It found that almost half of current university students had suffered physical abuse as children, from a sample of 3,500 who were surveyed. The violence they had suffered often took place in schools, where teachers were the principal perpetrators. There are no reliable nationwide statistics on the frequency child abuse in China. But the number of reports that appear in the state press—and are disseminated widely by social media—demonstrates a growing awareness of the practice. And with the awareness, a new intolerance for it; attitudes towards corporal punishment are changing. The practice now looks to many like a real problem.
The spread of “black” or unregistered kindergartens is partly to blame. China’s preschool capacity has been stretched thin and reputable kindergartens have become unaffordable for many families. (The teacher pictured above is working as a volunteer, with the children of migrant workers who cannot afford private tuitions.) Many schools cut costs by hiring untrained and unlicensed teachers. Ms Yan, the 20-year-old who was teaching kindergarten in Wenling, serves as a prime example.
Microblogs have played a major role in stirring new debate about child abuse, which was rarely discussed openly in the past (as about so many other things too; see this week’s special report). Last year China Daily, another state-run newspaper, said there were more than 4m microblog-posts concerning cases of child abuse.
Despite their being condemned by public opinion, even serial wrongdoers often walk free. The police detained Ms Yan but then she was released without charge. Critics say China’s laws for protecting children are flawed in that they refer only to abuse by the family, not by teachers or anyone else for that matter. Prosecutors must also prove that physical harm has been done—which means that any and all abusive acts that cause no lasting, visible damage go unpunished. To fix this, the Shanghai Women’s Federation has proposed that China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, introduce a definition of child abuse into the criminal code. In the uproar that followed Ms Yan’s release more than 20,000 “netizens” participated in a straw poll in order to vote in favour of a prohibition on child abuse.
Ms Lin has since decided to pay 4,500 yuan ($725) a term to send her son to a better kindergarten, compared with the 1,980 yuan ($320) she paid at the school where her son was allegedly abused. “In Chinese families, children are carefully treasured and even spoiled,” she explains. “How can I let a stranger hurt him?”
Featured photograph by Renato Ganoza