Rumors of child endangerment spark outrage in the community. There are lurid tales of caregivers using children’s bodies for their own selfish and nefarious purposes. People whisper of official collusion and stories that the worst abuses have yet to be revealed. The authorities move swiftly to suppress these rumors, and an investigation ultimately debunks the most heinous of charges, but the damage has been done. The public’s anger then shifts. Before, they targeted the child abusers. Now, their anger includes the officials who seemed a little too eager to dismiss the allegations as merely the gossip and hearsay of an excitable and unruly mob.
This could easily be a description of the RYB Kindergarten scandal that shocked and infuriated parents and citizens in Beijing this past month. Sensational allegations of child sexual abuse, injecting young children with drugs, and the beating and intimidation of other children have been covered extensively. That RYB was run by a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and possibly had some high-profile names among its backers added to the drama surrounding the case.
Late last night, authorities in Beijing announced that some of the claims of child abuse at the school were not to be believed. The police had taken one teacher into custody for using “knitting needles” to discipline children, but in a post released on Weibo on Tuesday night, authorities said they had determined the allegations of child sexual abuse had been fabricated.
Read a translation of an essay about the RYB scandal that’s gone viral
Many Beijing residents are still unsure how to react to the police announcement debunking the more salacious rumors surrounding the kindergarten.
Certainly, the charges of sexual abuse had attracted the most outrage on the posts uploaded to Weibo and WeChat. But the official response — many of those social media posts were swiftly removed by anxious censors — has done little to alleviate the concerns that China’s children are being put at risk in commercial childcare centers like RYB.
It seems unlikely that the official denial will do much to quiet the rumor mill that has kept this case in the public eye, despite official censorship.
Rumors have always played an important role in the sharing of information in China. The description which opens this post could be a description of this week’s events, but it’s not. It’s from a book I’m writing about the Tianjin Massacre of 1870, when an orphanage run by Catholic nuns came under suspicion of being a front for a ring of kidnappers that snatched children and then used their body parts for witchcraft and sorcery.
In the end, the worst rumors were debunked. The orphanage had been taking in a lot of children sickened in a cholera epidemic that year, which meant a higher than usual mortality rate for the orphans. But an official investigation cleared the Church and the orphanage of the more gruesome charges.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter what the officials said. Local outrage spilled into the streets and overwhelmed the authorities’ ability to respond. In a single day, 21 international residents of Tianjin, including 16 nuns, had been killed by angry mobs seeking justice denied by local officials.
We’re a long way from 1870, of course, and nobody thinks that the RYB scandal will result in the kind of unrest which happened in Tianjin over a century ago, but officials need to be careful when trying to control, quash, or spin information. Few things incite popular anger like a potential threat to their children. That hasn’t changed. When the official response is obfuscation and censorship, it makes it harder to believe the outcomes of investigations, especially when those outcomes would seem to benefit the side of social order.
The state — even in the imperial era — has always jealously guarded the right to determine and disseminate “the truth.” The difference between then and now is that technology has made it easier for the government to spread its own version of the truth, even as that same technology acts as a force-multiplier for rumors, gossip, and other forms of unofficial communication.
Whatever happened at RYB, child abuse at kindergartens and daycare centers is a problem in China. Official action to better supervise these institutions is a good start, but there also needs to be greater transparency — and less of a stranglehold on independent reporting — when scandals do occur. Otherwise, people will continue to rely on rumor and gossip to find out what is really going on around them.
Cover image: SCMP