A series of recent child sexual assault cases in China have highlighted loopholes and negligence in the country’s approach to protecting children.
Chinese billionaire Wang Zhenhua, a real estate tycoon who presided over Future Land Development, was charged in early July with molesting two minors aged 9 and 12.
Just like the Jeffrey Epstein situation in the US, Wang’s high-profile case with its sickening details infuriated Chinese parents and other citizens, many of whom came to realization that the news were merely the tip of the iceberg.
Not long ago, a school principal in China’s north-eastern Liaoning province was reported to have “sexually assaulted” one female pupil and “molested” four others. In another case, a 60-year-old elementary school teacher in Sichuan was sentenced to seven years in jail for child molestation. In Jiangsu, two elementary school teachers assaulted numerous female students, most of them ten-year-olds. These scandals, among numerous others, surfaced within a month’s time.
As recently as last week, media reported that a 34-year-old Colombian kindergarten teacher in Qingdao was sentenced to five years in prison for sexually abusing students during their nap hours.
The kindergarten is owned by the US-listed RYB Education, which was put on the spotlight in another child abuse case back in 2017, when parents found needle marks on their children’s bodies, and that preschoolers were given unidentified pills. Chinese investors called for a boycott of the company, making its stock plunge close to 40 percent in the trading days that followed.
The Chinese government, in response to recent cases, is stepping up the adoption of new measures. Plans to establish a national database of child sexual offenders were revealed on Aug. 2nd by an official at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The register will help enforce employment restrictions on individuals with criminal backgrounds in job roles that involve minors, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency.
While banning sex offenders from working at kindergartens should be a no-brainer — the United States, for instance, passed the Wetterling Act in 1993 and, subsequently, Megan’s Law in 1996 — such preliminary regulations were not levied in China until recent years. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that Jiangsu, one of China’s more progressive provinces, decided to disclose the identities of sexual assault convicts to employers.
When a Shanghai calligraphy teacher was found to have molested several female students in 2017, the victims’ parents found out that the teacher had been dismissed by his prior employer for sexual molestation. One parent sued his current employer for being complicit in the sexual offense. The court sided with the victim’s family, citing that the school had failed to perform due diligence.
In May, the Shanghai government proposed a plan to prohibit the recruitment of sex offenders – including but not limited to those who have committed rape and molestation – by education agencies such as kindergartens, schools, and medical institutions
While it remains uncertain whether the plan will expand nationwide, the national child sex abuse register proposed by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate is an important milestone.
Beijing has made improvements in its legal system to better protect minors from sexual abuse and violence. For instance, a crime of raping a girl under 14 years of age had been previously referred to as piaosu younü zui, which literally translates to “spending the night with a young girl in a brothel” — and it carried a much lighter penalty than rape. The line was only removed from the Criminal Law four years ago in 2015, when courts were allowed to sentence all rape convicts to a minimum of 10 years in jail or death penalty, regardless of the victim’s age.
Currently, “child molestation” (weixie ertong zui) is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, although the sentence can be longer in severe cases. The crime, however, covers some of the offenses that would be considered statutory rape in other countries.
Even if proper legislations are in place — they aren’t yet — difficulties in enforcement shall remain. The same legal and social obstacles faced by the #MeToo movement in the US will likely also confront China’s government and citizens.
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Between 2015 and November 2018, China’s courts processed 11,519 cases involving child molestation, according to the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. But the number is most definitely an underestimate: globally, around 15 million girls aged 15 to 19 have experienced sexual violence, according to a UNICEF report, but only 1% of them have reached out for professional help. This is especially true in China, where neither professional help nor proper sex education are available.
It is also worth noting that sexual assault cases often concern “left-behind” children (liushou ertong), who are separated from their migrant worker parents working away from home. In this respect, the war against child sex abuse will have to grapple not only with public outrage, but also with China’s multifaceted realities, including its socioeconomic disparities. That said, a better legal system that protects Chinese children from sexual predators may finally be on its way; for what it’s worth, it’s better late than never.