Over the past two weeks, it’s been discovered that two separate foreign pedophiles – a Brit in Beijing and an American in Nanjing – were working in Chinese schools with children. I’ve been waiting to comment on this story to see how it panned out and whether it would blow up in the Chinese press.
Surprisingly, it hasn’t. Weibo was only returning a few hundred results for “Neil Robinson” (the British pedophile). A few Chinese
outlets reported it – mostly using Xinhua copy – and TV reports appeared to stay very brief, sticking just to the facts and forgoing much commentary.
Compare that to about a year ago when a British man appeared on video to be sexually assaulting a woman in Beijing and, in a separate incident, a Russian cellist had the audacity to put his feet up on the seat in front of him on the train. These two incidents caused a media/Weibo uproar and were the talk of China for a few weeks. Many believe they even precipitated a 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing that followed soon after.
So why did these two events call people to arms and create a xenophobic shitstorm, yet people don’t seem especially bothered now by two cases of verifiable foreign sexual predators infiltrating Chinese schools?
I wondered the same thing back in October when there was another cluster of bad laowai that, on the surface, seemed to be much worse than those that had preceded the 100-day crackdown. There was a drunk Russian who rampaged through Beijing, an American who allegedly raped a 16-year-old Chinese girl in Shenzhen, and a Frenchman who attacked random people in Guilin. Again, very little uproar compared to the British rapist and Russian cellist. Why?
I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but as Apple can now tell you, highly-coordinated media/internet campaigns aimed at riling up anger at a foreign target can, and most certainly do, happen in China.
Anyone in the media can tell you that how much play a certain story receives depends on a lot of factors, many of which are totally random (who happens to see and retweet it, what else is happening in the news, what angle the story is initialy covered from, etc.). So it is possible that, for whatever reason, these pedophiles and the bad laowai cluster in October simply failed to reach that critical mass needed to get wide coverage – a critical mass that the British rapist/Russian cellist somehow managed to attain.
But consider what was going on in the news just prior to when the British rapist video went viral in early May last year. The fallout over Chen Guangcheng’s escape was still going on, and that had come right on the heels of Bo Xilai’s sensational purging – both events that shook the Communist Party hard. There was a lot of talk about how these incidents might disrupt the upcoming power handover. It was a period where a bit of outwardly-directed nationalism would be very convenient.
When the British rapist video came out, it was heavily promoted on major video sharing sites. Then when the Russian cellist video was released, the two events were held up together across many different outlets with an “arrogant laowai” angle. Beijing Morning Post even seemed to believe the Russian cellist warranted front page coverage.
Maybe media were directed to sensationalize these things, or more likely, they were simply allowed to pounce on a topic guaranteed to generate good ratings. I’ve written before on how we probably have censorship to thank for media xenophobia not being as bad as it could be in China. To make a contrast, South Korea last year gave us the much derided “exposé” entitled “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners.” Then back in 2007, when a single foreign pedophile was discovered to have taught in Korea, there was a media uproar and soon after the country tightened its visa policy.
In China we now have not one, but TWO foreign pedophiles. That constitutes an epidemic in any country’s media, but the fact that the Chinese press has shown so much restraint and not played the foreign menace card in this case suggests to me that it wasn’t necessarily their choice. Xenophobia is useful for the government in small periodic doses, but it definitely has its negative consequences and can easily get out of hand. At this point in time, there doesn’t seem much to be gained from such an uproar.
In many ways though, I’m disappointed these pedophile stories haven’t received more attention. Foreign sex offenders coming to teach in China are actually a significant problem. And that problem is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater social epidemic the whole of China faces.
I actually personally knew the Nanjing pedophile involved in the current case when I taught with him a few years ago (I wrote about him here in 2011). When a co-worker discovered he was a sex offender and informed the coordinator of the school, she did nothing for over a week. Only when the co-worker threatened to call the police did she reluctantly fire the man.
The co-worker still ended up tipping off police, who it now appears did absolutely nothing (this was in late 2009 and the pedophile has apparently still been in China the past 3 years).
It may be a bit hasty though to totally blame these authority figures for their reluctance to take action. The concept of pedophilia is largely unknown and willfully ignored in Chinese education, and this has tragic consequences. But the kids I worry about most aren’t the ones in private international schools. They’re the ones in rural Chinese public schools.
Every few years a huge scandal surfaces involving a Chinese teacher sexually abusing his students. In 2005, a teacher raped 26 fourth and fifth graders. In 2009, a Hunan teacher raped 11 students aged 9 to 14. Then just last year, a government official who also taught at a vocational college was arrested after he raped as many as 100 girls – some as young as 11. You rarely hear about pedophiles in China until they’ve racked up a lot of victims, and that’s pretty telling.
China has the same social stigma attached to sexual abuse that many countries do, which prevents victims and their parents from coming forward. On top of that, China has almost no sexual abuse education for kids or parents, so the concept and frequency of pedophilia isn’t very well understood by the public. It’s totally feasible that even when it’s reported to some kind of school administrator or authority figure, they’re genuinely unsure of what to do. On top of that, in rural areas, many parents leave their kids behind with grandparents while they go out for migrant work, making it even harder to deal with sexual abuse incidents.
But there are also some much more sinister dynamics in play.
The last thing you want to do if you’re a Chinese parent is risk upsetting people who have power over your child’s education. That alone keeps many from pressing the issue. If you do go to the school administration their first inclination is to put a lid on the incident (this is usually what’s found to have happened in the aftermath of these scandals). They’ll pressure you to stay quiet and say they’ll move your child to another teacher or transfer the teacher to another school. Then some hush money seals the deal.
If you’re in a rural area and you go straight to the police, ultimately they’re accountable to the town Party secretary, who may be on cozy terms with the school administration. The last thing he wants is a disruption to “social harmony” or negative attention brought to his town. You’ll probably get the same carrots and sticks there: hush money and pressure to stay quiet, coupled with the implication that your case really has no legal standing anyways. Only if you figure out that other kids have been abused by the same person and you band together with their parents are you likely to ever make the case see the light of day.
These foreign pedophiles probably should have been pounced on harder by the media; not from an angle emphasizing their foreignness, but emphasizing the child abuse epidemic and the conditions that attract creeps like these to China. There are some now calling for mandatory background checks on foreign teachers in China. That’s probably a good start, but that’s just scratching the surface of all that needs to be changed.