Why NZ cleared a Chinese man for touching a boy's penis

By Beijing bureau
BBC News

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A 79-year-old Chinese man appeared in court in New Zealand last week after he pinched a toddler's penis in a swimming pool changing room.

But despite admitting assault, he was let off a charge as the judge accepted his argument that the behaviour was a traditional sign of affection in China, say media reports.

How true is that and how has China reacted?

What happened in the incident?

Last August, in a recreation centre changing room in Christchurch, Chinese man Ren Changfu saw a boy he didn't know getting changed with his father. Ren went over to talk to them, flicked the toddler's penis, laughed and touched it again, New Zealand media report.

The father told Ren to stop and called the police.

The man, who had moved to New Zealand in 2009, told the police that he hadn't known such an action was offensive there, and that the young victim had reminded him of a grandson back in China whom he missed deeply.

What was his defence?

Ren's daughter prepared a report that said in China, tweaking a child's penis was a way of showing affection.

Christchurch District Court Judge Alistair Garland accepted the defence's submission and decided there was no sexual motive behind Ren's behaviour, local media reported.

The judge reportedly said Ren was devastated to have upset the family and "willing to do anything he could to make amends", and that his actions "needed to be understood in terms of Mr Ren's culture".

The child's parents have accepted his apology and compensation of NZ$1,000 ($670; £540).

What's the reaction in China been?

The news has become a talking point on Chinese social media over the past week, with most people saying it's a misinterpretation of societal norms.

Chinese news portal Sohu reposted the anecdote on Weibo, sparking huge controversy.

Among more than 1,200 comments, about 300 said they had never thought of the action as being part of the culture. Nearly 200 said they'd seen or heard about it decades ago in certain rural areas, practiced by the old people, but that it was a dying habit widely seen now as ugly.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTraditionally Chinese families have placed higher value on boy babies (stock image)

The rest of the comments either left a question mark over the news, or an emoji expressing anger or doubt.

As a Chinese man in his late 70s, Ren might have justified his deeds, as some of his generation did it for various reasons.

Many Chinese families have long favoured sons over daughters. Touching a baby boy's genitals, never a girl's, has been a way to enhance the family's pride. And before nappies were widely used, kids would wear pants with the crotch part open, leaving them exposed.

But any interactions with a child would involve older relatives or close friends of the child's parents. Any touching by an adult of a kid he or she doesn't know would of course lead to serious consequences in China.

And there have been similar cases in China:

  • In March, a man was charged after touching an unknown boy's penis when they were in a public bathhouse - as a joke, he said. He ended up paying compensation of 150,000 yuan (£17,550; $21,800)
  • In 2015, a pensioner and her 3-year-old grandson, while they were out for a walk, met an old man for the first time who said the boy was cute and touched his lower parts. The grandmother immediately stopped the old man, according to state media People's Daily

Lawyer Xue Yuhai was quoted by national newspaper People's Daily as suggesting that parents should call the police if such things happened.

Prof Liu Wenli of Beijing Normal University, an expert in how to teach children about sexuality, said touching a boy's genitals was a "rotten habit" in Chinese culture which reflected that adults didn't know how to respect children.

But now children are more aware of self-protection and parents seldom tolerate such practices, especially in cities, Prof Liu said.

She said that touching a kid's genitals might make him or her think it was normal, which might result in poor levels of self-protection and interpersonal communication.

Parents should tell their kids that the genitals can only be touched by the parents when taking a shower or by a doctor when doing medical checks, Prof Liu suggested.

Additional research by Coco Feng