A Tale of Two Tragedies

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7:32 PM HKT, Sat November 25, 2017 4 mins read

It’s been a bad week in Beijing. Last weekend, a fire in a two-story building housing mostly migrant workers killed 19 people and injured eight others. In response, the municipal government announced citywide inspections targeting “illegal and unsafe structures,” a move which is as much about clearing out economic migrants as it is about safety.

A few days later, a child abuse scandal at a kindergarten in an upscale neighborhood of Beijing blew up what’s left of the internet in China. Censors rushed to contain angry Weibo and WeChat posts from concerned parents, leading many to wonder if this is just the tip of a particularly terrible iceberg of abusive practices at childcare facilities here.

Two unspeakable tragedies in the same city and yet happening worlds apart.

Last weekend’s deadly blaze broke out in Xinjian Township, a part of Beijing far removed from the high rises and malls of Beijing’s Chaoyang district where the RYB kindergarten is located. It’s a part of the city where shantytowns and dilapidated buildings are divided and then divided again to create residential and workspaces for some of the city’s millions of economic migrants.

“There were 82 garment manufacturers crammed into Xinjian Village,” according to the China Labour Bulletin:

The building where the fire occurred, “Gathering Good Fortune Apartments,” and its neighbouring structures were draped in tangled power lines, and their exteriors darkened by age. The second floor contained more than one hundred cramped ten-square-metre rooms, some housing three to four people, and the whole floor was serviced by just two staircases.

Photo via China Labour Bulletin

In many cases, migrant workers are forced by the economic realities of Beijing into improvised — and frequently dangerous — accommodations. The median monthly rent in Beijing is 2,748 RMB (about $415), according to a study cited in an earlier post by China Labour Bulletin. This amount is equal to 100% of the average salary of a migrant worker. This unsustainable situation has resulted in a proliferation of “Migrant Villages” of ramshackle housing with limited social services.

The response to the fire by authorities was swift and predictable: a combination of media suppression and an aggressive campaign against illegal and unsafe structures, which a cynical observer might suggest fits a little too neatly with a larger plan to transform the city into a show capital of high-end businesses and “high quality” people.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against safety inspections. Many of the city’s low-cost dwellings (and a frightening number of high-cost dwellings as well) have been constructed haphazardly using substandard materials, according to safety standards undermined by official corruption and the cult of chabuduo. But the official response to the disaster is to demolish unsafe structures without consideration for providing low-cost alternatives for economic migrants who, let’s face it, do most of heavy lifting for the city’s better-heeled residents.

And it is this group — Beijing’s urban elite — who also had their world rocked this week by the sickening allegations of children being forcibly injected, drugged, assaulted and threatened by staff at the RYB Kindergarten, located in Xintiandi, an apartment complex popular with Beijing’s upwardly mobile.

This latest scandal comes only a fortnight after videos of child abuse at a company daycare in Shanghai. Outraged parents there went Red Guard Redux on a janitor at the school during what was supposed to be a press conference.

This week’s accusations in Beijing against the RYB Kindergarten have resulted in similar fury that, so far at least, seems to be contained online. But what a fury it is. As Fan Shuhong wrote on RADII yesterday:

Over the last two days, the Chinese internet has gone wild with thousands of burning reposts and comments of news relating to the latest such scandal, in which several parents have accused the staff of a Beijing branch of private kindergarten RYB Education of drugging and sexually abusing children as young as three and a half years old.

“I want to burn it down,” said one victim’s father while staring at the school, part of an education company that was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in September. In another video, which has more than 76,000 reposts and 56,000 comments on Weibo as of this writing, another parent says that children from the school were given white pills, and that dozens of students were found with needle marks on their bodies.”

What’s on Weibo captures more of the online conversation:

We all know that society is not so light, but who knew it was so dark,” some people on an online forum say: “Besides what is out there in the media, there are so many things that remain under the radar. What can we do but just hope that these kids will grow up healthy and strong?

Authorities have detained staff members from the kindergarten while attempting to portray this case — and the one in Shanghai — as isolated incidents. Online censors initially kept busy deleting posts which “sensationalize the incident” but later backed off slightly when the censorship of the story threatened to create its own backlash.

It’s a dangerous game. There have long been grumbles by the moneyed class that many of the city’s problems are rooted in an overly permissive attitude to migrants from other provinces, foreigners, and the seemingly unregulated and chaotic neighborhoods popular with businesses run by members of these two groups. But Mao protect the government official who messes with the children, or, in what is still the case in many families, child, of the Beijing middle- and upper-class. It’s one reason air pollution is such a sensitive topic. It doesn’t matter if some people can’t send their kids to school in Beijing so long as my kid can go. But every person’s child, rich or poor, has to breathe the air.

The child abuse scandal at RYB cuts to the heart of a sacrosanct — although mostly fictional — belief that economic success and relative wealth can protect the urban elite from the harsh realities faced by most other Chinese citizens. The urban elite believes they can spend their way out of life in substandard housing and provide their children the best education and healthcare money can buy. When policies affect their well-being or status, this group has also for many years consistently punched above its weight. But there are limits.

Chinese leaders, especially over the past 28 years, have perceived linkages — whether horizontal across geographical boundaries or vertically connecting grievances among social classes — as dangerous and destabilizing. The events of this week in Beijing, twin tragedies affecting different worlds in the same city, are sad reminders of realities often forced out of view by anxious authorities and the self-preserving elite.

Cover image: VOA News

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