China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher
Tania Branigan in Beijing
31 May 2013
Seven teachers in a matter of weeks are accused of sexually abusing schoolgirls. Five street children suffocate while trying to keep warm in a rubbish bin in winter. A father sews up the mouth of his young daughter. Teachers beat and torment their kindergarten pupils.
Popular Chinese culture idealises childhood and – particularly since the introduction of strict birth-control laws – many families pamper their offspring. "Respect the old, cherish the young," runs one maxim. But in recent months a spate of scandals over abuse and neglect have shocked the public and highlighted the vulnerability of children – even before people learned of Baby 59, the newborn who was trapped in a sewage pipe.
The outpouring of sympathy for the little boy, which saw his hospital flooded with gifts and offers of adoption, has underscored society's warmth towards children. The lack of formal support his mother can expect in the coming years – experts said she was unlikely to be advised or monitored by social workers – highlights the shortcomings of the system. Baby 59 is with his grandparents: China relies on families to provide care, because the child welfare system is at best embryonic.
The increase in coverage of abuse may, perversely, be a good sign: experts believe it reflects the growing awareness of children's rights.
"In the past Chinese people regarded child protection only as a domestic issue, but now people understand it is also part of social welfare and the government is responsible for it too," said Chen Zhonglin, an expert on social work at Nankai University in Tianjin.
But some think China's social wave of rural-to-urban migration has also put children at greater risk. According to research published by the All-China Women's Federation, around 61 million children are left behind in the countryside while their parents work in the cities.
While their families are materially better off as a result, they are often left with grandparents who may be unable to care for them properly and the lack of opportunity to bond can damage parent-child relationships. "It's made children much more vulnerable," said Geoff Crothall of China Labour Bulletin.
"There's a lot of evidence that there are predatory individuals, mainly middle-aged and elderly men, who are taking advantage of the lack of parental supervision."
Xue Xinya, head of the sociology and social work department at Xi'an's Northwestern University, said many people lacked awareness of sexual abuse, partly because they did not want to discuss issues related to sex.
"You can find books to help children learn how to avoid fires and other disasters but you cannot find any helping children to protect themselves in this regard," she said.
When she carried out research in a middle school, teachers criticised her team for inappropriate questions.
"The teachers did not understand it. But one girl cried immediately when she saw the questionnaire – we knew it had happened [to her]," she said. A spate of recent cases have taken place in schools.
The official China News Service said on Thursday that there had been at least eight cases of school staff – mostly teachers – being detained for sexual abuse in less than three weeks, prompting Guangzhou Women's Federation to promise to distribute thousands of manuals on avoiding predators.
In some of the recent incidents children were not believed when they first told their parents.
Worse still, Xue said, some people sought to blame the victims. "Society has more tolerance for a rapist than a thief. It is ridiculous," she said.
When police in Wanning, Hainan province, arrested a headteacher and an official on charges of molesting six schoolgirls this month, one newspaper claimed the girls had invited the men to come drinking and take hotel rooms with them, adding: "When the public and parents accuse the headmaster and government official, should they reflect on the lifestyle of those girls and their previous education?"
Anger at such attitudes, and at the inadequate official response to sexual abuse, prompted activists to protest outside government offices in the city this week. One, the lawyer Wang Yu, said officials had done too little to protect children and the punishment for sex with underage girls was too lenient.
Another, the well-known campaigner Ye Haiyan, held up a sign reading: "Principal, call me if you want to get a room. Leave the pupils alone" – prompting hundreds of people to post images of themselves with the same message online. She later reported that she had been beaten in front of her child by people who stormed into her home in Bobai county, Guangxi; local police told the Guardian on Thursday evening that she was helping their inquiries at the station.
Children also remain vulnerable to other violence from family members. In part, said Xue, people were reluctant to intervene because they regarded hitting children – within limits – as part of family discipline. But even if neighbours or relatives step in, they face obstacles.
Earlier this month state media reported that an 11-year-old girl rescued from her father in Guizhou had been repeatedly beaten, pierced with needles and forced to kneel on broken glass. He had sewn her mouth shut with fishing wire and scalded her with boiling water; officials said she was the height of a seven-year-old due to malnutrition.
Yet a child protection lawyer warned that removing her from her father's custody could still be difficult. Chen Huiqi told the Global Times newspaper that removal from parents' care was only possible when another family member reported abuse to the court or when prosecutors filed formal charges against parents after a child had been "severely hurt" – a term which is not defined in the law.
In October two kindergarten teachers were fired for cruelty, one after she lifted a small boy by his ears and taped pupils' mouths shut – reportedly saying she did it for "fun" – and another after repeatedly hitting children when they could not answer maths questions.
The ministry of education said it would strengthen the regulation of nurseries and the women were detained for short periods as punishment, yet neither is thought to have been prosecuted.
Experts say that while some progress has been made on child protection, China needs strengthened laws, a dedicated department and a properly funded and developed child welfare system; the ministry of civil affairs is working with Unicef on a pilot scheme to develop a community-based child model.
"We have a child protection law, but it has not been completely put into effect," said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the independent 21st Century Education Research Institute.
"We need to strictly implement the law and schools should strengthen their safety education. We should not rely on social morality to suppress these crimes, but the law." Additional research by Cecily Huang