Last week at an unlicensed Montessori kindergarten in Taiyuan, in the western province of Shanxi, a teacher slapped a five-year-old girl in the face more than 70 times and kicked her twice because she didn’t manage to do her arithmetic.
While an online video of the abuse was setting off a huge public outcry, another set of photos of similarly abominable corporal punishment of pre-school children started to make the Internet rounds. In the photos, the young children were subject to all sorts of physical abuse, including being lifted off the ground by their ears, placed upside down in a rubbish bin, having their mouths taped and hands bound to desks.
How did the photos of the abuse arrive online? The teacher from Wenling, Zhejiang Province, posted them on her blog, calling it “fun.”
The tip of the iceberg
What are the causes of such frequent pre-school violence? Is the fundamental problem simply that these schools operated without a license?
In fact, the exposure of these examples of physical abuses is just the tip of the iceberg. From primary and secondary schools down to pre-schools, serious corporal punishment inflicted on Chinese students is endless. Demand is intense for entry places in pre-schools, while teacher training has not kept up with the pace of the large number of newly established kindergartens.
Not only do many of the “teachers” not possess any qualification for pre-school education, they are often disgruntled because of their low pay, low recognition and workplace stress.
There is a major urban-rural divide in China’s education system, with a notable difference between the privately-run educational institutions with their uncertified instructors and the public schools and their well-trained teachers. There are shortages of funding for the private pre-schools and kindergartens that serve migrant workers’ children, resulting in poorly paid and poorly trained teachers and rundown school facilities.
However, the cause of these incidents shouldn’t be attributed simply to the fact that they occurred in “illegal kindergartens.” Local authorities have set unrealistically high thresholds for the legal registration of kindergartens. The higher the legal standards, the more likely it is that schools will simply avoid registering any security- and hygiene-related shortcomings. Moreover, local administration officials can deny responsibility by pointing the finger at these unregistered kindergartens.
Another problem is what we can call the “primary-schoolization of pre-school.” The conflicts between playing and learning in kindergarten education are highlighted. Absurd incidents caused by the destructive enthusiasm of teachers are all too frequent. The very utilitarian view of teachers of their students’ academic performance has pushed parents to demand an academic approach right from the pre-school stage.
Crime and punishment
Despite public outrage, the vast majority of the teachers involved, as well as the troubled kindergartens, receive only very minor penalties. For instance, two years ago in Jiangsu Province, a teacher who burned seven of his students with an iron was punished with ten days of suspension and a 500 RMB ($80) fine.
As for the teacher who abused his pupils and posted the photos online, Wenling’s local public security has opened a criminal investigation for allegedly “disturbing and troubling social order”. Currently in China there is no criminal penalty for child maltreatment except in cases of abuse from family members.
Ding Jinkun, a Shanghai lawyer, said that the charge of "disturbing and troubling social order" is a variant of the former crime of hooliganism. In the absence of any relevant law, using other laws to punish the abusive behavior “is deviating from the principle of the rule of law and will shake the cornerstone of the law,” said Ding.
Ding stated that child abuse by teachers should have its own special sanctions. And when it comes to civil damages for which the abusive teacher was on duty, the kindergarten should be held responsible for compensation.
Before the legislation is ready, the abusive teacher should be punished by administrative fines, and the relatives of the children’s family can launch a civil case against the teacher via the Tort Law. China must take this opportunity to modify the current law concerning child abuse so it can be applied to non-family members. But the court should not extend the existing criminal law to cover the abusive teacher, or anyone could potentially be criminalized by clauses that don’t really apply.