China: Nursery abuse probe provokes widespread distrust

The RYB kindergarten in eastern Beijing Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Censors are now blocking comments on the RYB kindergarten in eastern Beijing

A police investigation into child abuse in a Chinese kindergarten has dismissed all but one of the main accusations, causing widespread social media outrage, with parents turning to lawyers.

It is also leading some to question China's entire system of governance and accountability.

When we arrived at the gates of the kindergarten on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, parents and grandparents were waiting to pick up their children on a cold winter's afternoon.

They didn't want to be interviewed about the horrible things said to have happened inside, certainly not on the record.

They were understandably distressed.

Children as young as three had been found with marks on them, which appeared to be from needles, sparking fears that injections were being used as a form of punishment.

Then there were stories from other parents saying their children had been forced to strip in the presence of an adult man and to take mysterious white tablets.

Teachers were walking small groups of children to the gate, holding hands in their bright, puffy coats.

At one stage, specialist police carrying bags of equipment were striding in as the kids were coming out.

Their findings, whether valid or not, have distressed many Chinese people, who have been quick to believe theories of a cover-up.

The police said:

  • Children forced to strip naked with adult man? No evidence
  • Children made to take mysterious white tablets? No evidence
  • One teacher is being held in custody accused of using sewing needles, not syringes, to prick the skin of children

Crucially, the police also said in an official statement that people had been making up stories regarding the kindergarten.

One woman, claiming to be a parent, was even detained on charges of "fabricating facts to disrupt public order".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A security guard at the kindergarten; authorities have been accused of closing the investigation prematurely

However, police also said chunks of surveillance material at the kindergarten were not available because the hard drive had been damaged.

Staff told officers they had been switching the security camera system on and off because it was too noisy.

Upon hearing this, the accusation that the authorities had prematurely cleared most kindergarten staff has gained considerable traction here.

Social media platforms were flush with commentary that this excuse was all too convenient.

Then the censors were mobilised.

It was time to shut down talk of the kindergarten.

Using keyword-blocking software, Chinese people are now being prevented from airing their grievances on social media about the outcome at the kindergarten.

'Severe disquiet'

Overseas this has not been the case.

Outside the Great Firewall of China, the capabilities of the Communist Party are being brought into question on platforms such as Twitter.

This kindergarten is operated by RYB Education.

According to its own website, the company runs more than 1,000 facilities across China.

It said it "deeply apologises" for a matter it said had caused "severe disquiet".

Image copyright Reuters/CCTV
Image caption State broadcaster CCTV had aired pictures of needle marks taken by a parent

RYB is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and when news of the allegations broke its share price initially plummeted.

But to the disappointment of those railing against the company, it has since recovered considerably.

This is not the first such scandal to hit RYB and the company does not have a monopoly on recent allegations of child abuse in China.

In mid-November, there was an investigation into cases of bruised children at a kindergarten in Wuhan, Hubei province.

In Shanghai, during the same month, a video was released appearing to show a teacher pushing a small girl who fell and hit her head on the edge of a table.

The cases have no doubt inflamed concern.

Beijing municipal education officials say they are now in the process of investigating the safety of all kindergartens in the Chinese capital.

However, it will take quite an effort to restore public confidence in these institutions.