Reports of abuse at a Beijing kindergarten have led to concern and anger from local parents, and have been widely reported around the world. However, the limited facts available have been lost in a maelstrom of rumor and speculation, and the truth is difficult to ascertain.
The known facts, as reported in reputable media, are as follows. On Thursday (Nov 23), a group of parents gathered in protest at the gates of a kindergarten in Chaoyang District, having made a formal complaint to police the evening before. The kindergarten was the Xintiandi branch of the RYB (Red Yellow Blue / Honghuanglan) Group, one of China’s largest daycare providers. Eight children attending the facility had been examined by a doctor and reported as having needle marks on their skin. Parents told reporters from Caixin Global that they believed the children had been jabbed with needles as punishment for misbehaving.
“Disobedient students were also forced to stand naked or were locked up in a dark room at the kindergarten,” one parent said. Some parents also reported that their children had been forced to take white pills.
Initially, three teachers were suspended. As the scandal broke the Chaoyang district government ordered RYB to fire the principal, and another teacher was also fired. On Saturday (Nov 25), two women were arrested: one, a teacher, for abuse, and another for spreading false information about the incident. It’s not known whether the second person was a parent or a teacher at the kindergarten.
These few details have been augmented by a torrent of hearsay and conjecture on social media. Two videos were circulating on Thursday. One shows parents talking to a young girl, with an unseen fourth person filming and adding questions. The father is holding a small white pill, and the girl says that she eats a pill like it every day before her afternoon nap. She says the pill is sweet and tries twice to eat the pill her father is holding.
It’s not clear whether the child in the video actually attends the Xintiandi kindergarten. The assumption on social media has been that the children were being sedated. But in 2014, a kindergarten in Jilin province was closed after staff members were found to be giving children little white pills, which they told them were “smart beans.” The pills were said to be prescription antiviral drugs, given in an attempt to stop the children getting ill, but which actually gave them nosebleeds and stomachaches. Whether or not it is connected to this case, sharing on social media a video of a child disclosing abuse is ethically questionable at least.
The second video was posted on Weibo and has since been deleted. It shows a woman, presumably a parent at the kindergarten, describing her child disclosing sexual abuse by two men at the kindergarten. (There were no male staff at the kindergarten.) This video prompted rumors of an organized abuse ring, and the fact that only one teacher has been arrested has led to suggestions of a cover-up.
Even respected news organizations have muddied the waters. The BBC reported that the children had been injected with drugs. In this, they seem to have conflated the original stories about the children being given pills and jabbed with needles.
This scandal comes in the wake of kindergarten physical abuse cases in Shanghai and Chongqing, and another case involving jabbing children with sewing needles at an RYB facility in 2015 in Jilin Province. It seems clear that there is a significant problem with unqualified and poorly trained staff in daycare facilities using cruel and violent methods to discipline children.
However, it would be sensible to be wary of some of the more lurid claims until actual evidence appears. Those with long memories may recall a wave of sexual abuse scandals at US kindergartens in the 1980s. Although it remains a controversial issue, most of the claims have since been discredited and the people accused exonerated. Human memory is more malleable than was once believed and children are easily influenced by questioning. Given the opaque nature of the Chinese judicial system, it’s unlikely that we would see here a story like that of Bernard Baran, who spent over 20 years in prison fighting for justice before he was finally cleared of all charges and released. It’s worth bearing in mind too that child abuse in China can be punished with the death penalty.
Besides the risk of miscarriages of justice, knee-jerk reactions to scandals can result in action which is further detrimental to children. Installing cameras throughout kindergartens trains future generations that they need to be under constant surveillance for their own safety, and is ducking the real issue of properly training and supervising childcare staff. In the UK, decades of hysteria about “stranger danger” have seriously curtailed the freedom of kids to play outdoors, with significant impact on their health and resilience.
As any child protection professional will tell you, the vast majority of abuse takes place within the home and by family members. It is the exceptional cases however which command the headlines. Like the US in the 1980s, China is experiencing a huge expansion of paid-for daycare as traditional roles change; more women now go out to work, and not every family has grandparents able and willing to help or can afford an ayi. Parents’ wholly understandable anxiety about handing over young children to the care of strangers, and their natural anger and repugnance at stories of abuse, should not override the need for a rational, professional approach to a serious problem. To do so is to risk causing further harm.