Sex Abuse and China’s Children

By Lijia Zhang

Clip_22When I was 13, living in the outskirts of Nanjing, China, in the ’70s, my math teacher molested all the girls in our class, including me. Under the pretense of checking my work, he would lean over me, his face so close that I could smell his garlic breath, and he’d move his hand up my shirt, touching my chest.

Apart from trying to avoid him, we didn’t take any action. We knew what he was doing was wrong, but it never occurred to us to report him. A teacher in a Chinese classroom holds tremendous authority over students, and we didn’t even know the term “sexual abuse.” Most of us made it through the trauma, except for his main target, a plump girl who dropped out of school before she turned 14.

In May of last year, a sordid story of child sex abuse made headlines. Chen Zaipeng, then the principal of Wanning No. 2 Primary School, Hainan Province, together with a government official, took six pupils between 11 and 14 years old to a hotel and sexually abused them. Mr. Chen was convicted of rape and sentenced to a mere 13-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes.

The case sparked a national outcry, particularly over the light punishment Mr. Chen received. In one act of protest, a rights activist, Ye Haiyan, went to the school in Wanning, brandishing a poster that read: “Principal, if you want to ‘get a room’ look for me; leave the students alone!” Images of her action went viral.

Ms. Ye’s protest and others like it rippled through the Internet and, along with widespread exposure of Mr. Chen’s crimes, brought child sex abuse out into the open. Chinese people started to discuss the issue publicly and, as a result, other victims came forward. By the end of May, some 20 more sex-abuse cases, mostly at schools, were reported and publicized.

The trend has continued. According to a Chinese government report, 125 cases of child sex abuse were documented in 2013, a record number for China, where people don’t normally talk about these things.

There is insufficient data to claim that sex abuse of minors is rising. What has changed is that the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, and that the government is reacting.

In the wake of these scandals, the central government issued sex-abuse-prevention guidelines in September for provincial governments, the education bureau and other departments that oversee children. They recommend an increase in sex education: Students, girls in particular, need to know what sex abuse is and how to seek help if it occurs. School authorities are asked to improve background checks on teachers. Local governments are urged to establish hotlines.

In October 2013, China’s top legal authorities issued their own guidelines, stipulating seven circumstances that warrant severe punishment. Though not law, the guidelines provide a legal and moral framework that officials are expected to follow. The guidelines promise “maximum protection” to children, and zero tolerance to offenders.

Heavier sentences are sought for offenses committed by teachers, health workers or other officials responsible for educating or protecting children. If they are caught having sex with a girl under age 14 — whether or not the act is consensual — it will be regarded as rape.

Both sets of guidelines indicate official recognition of the severity of the problem, but they don’t go far enough. A war on all fronts is needed.

The controversial “soliciting child prostitution” law should be scrapped. Introduced in 1997 as part of the revised criminal code, it was meant to deter men from paying child prostitutes. But many men accused of child abuse are able to argue that the victim was a prostitute and that they should be sentenced under the soliciting law, which has lighter punishments than child abuse laws.

The October guidelines have made it significantly harder to abuse the child prostitution law and its abolition is being considered by the authorities. There should be no more delay in repealing it.

But China is infamous for having strong laws that go unenforced. And compared to Western countries, Chinese courts tend to give sex offenders, well-connected officials in particular, light sentences. Changing some laws is a first step. More concrete actions should follow.

Governmental social services are essentially nonexistent. Beijing should set up a child-protection network, including a national department for child protection. Social workers, legal workers and psychologists need to be brought into the system.

A change in attitude is essential. A new emphasis on sex education would help. The subject is mostly ignored by teachers, and children seldom hear “the facts of life” at home. Lack of sexual knowledge and the awareness of potential abuse make young girls, like the group in my elementary school class, prone to exploitation.

Toxic traditional beliefs are another hurdle. A long-held Chinese myth says that having sex with a virgin can boost a man’s virility. The modern version has it that deflowering a girl can enhance a man’s chance of promotion because the word “virgin,” chu, is contained in the termchuzhang, which means section chief.

Chinese society will have to continue to open up, enabling more victims and their families to come forward. Up to now, a large number of cases went unreported, and few victims took legal action because the battles were so hard to fight, the punishment to abusers so lenient, and compensation extremely low. Victims’ families are still often stigmatized.

Today’s China is a much better place than the country of my childhood, but we have a long way to go. I often wonder what became of my classmate, the victim of the child abuse. Would she fare any better today?

Lijia Zhang is the author of “Socialism Is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.”