BEIJING — A kindergarten in Beijing run by a New York-listed company has been engulfed by a wave of public suspicion and wrath after parents charged that children in a class there were fed pills, jabbed with needles and forced to strip naked.
The Beijing police and education officials have not confirmed any of the widely circulated claims that children were abused at the RYB Kindergarten in Xintiandi, a middle-class apartment development in eastern Beijing. But among the Chinese public and on the internet, few seemed inclined to question the accounts after a string of cases of kindergarten and preschool teachers beating or tormenting children.
“The teacher told the kids, ‘I’ve got a long, long telescope that can see right into your home, and I’ll know just what you’ve been saying and doing,’ ” one woman tearfully told reporters outside the kindergarten in an interview that spread widely on the internet in China. “How could a child not be scared?” she said. “That’s why the kids didn’t dare tell their parents.”
On Friday, the company that operates the kindergarten denied the accusations, and a few classes continued, suggesting that at least some parents with children there were not shaken by the reports. The police and the city education bureau responded carefully, saying they were investigating and would seek harsh punishment if the allegations proved true.
But Chinese internet sites and social media were a cacophony of fury about the claims, which spread this week after parents shared them through interviews and social media. Some parents raised darker suspicions that their children may have been molested after being forced to strip.
Chinese censors often expunge comments that could provoke criticism of the government or stir unrest. But they appeared incapable of silencing the eruption of emotion this time.
“Calling on everyone to save these children! Demand justice for these children!” said one of the accounts that spread rapidly on WeChat and Sina.com Weibo, popular social media services.
In China, few topics ignite as much passion and worry as the well-being of children. The concerns universal to all parents have been magnified here by the one-child policy, which until its recent relaxation restricted most urban couples to one son or daughter.
The visceral fury about the reports has laid bare the distrust that many feel about rigid, harsh, even abusive conditions in schools and what many see as a lack of official accountability when children are mistreated. Even Xinhua, China’s state-run news service, which often defends the government, felt compelled to demand answers.
“Looking over the cases of child abuse in recent years, one can’t help but ask: How did people utterly devoid of pedagogic morals or even professional qualifications creep into the teaching profession?” said an editorial about the allegations issued by Xinhua on Thursday.
“If this happened only occasionally, it could be put down to personal factors. But these incidents happen again and again, and must draw high-level attention,” it said. “The departments concerned must show a highly responsible attitude toward society and the future.”
The uproar reflected how many Chinese people distrust the institutions and government oversight that are meant to protect people, especially children, said Guo Yuhua, an anthropologist and social commentator who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“When there are reports about malicious incidents against the most vulnerable, least protected group in society, there’s always a powerful reaction,” she said by telephone. “As well, given China’s damaged social fabric, there’s a lack of trust and people have an attitude that says, ‘No matter how bad we imagine you are, you’ll turn out to be even worse.’”
Chinese news reports have cited parents who said their children in one kindergarten class spoke of being fed pale pills that made them drowsy. Other parents have shared pictures of what they say appeared to be small jab marks on their children. Other parents have said that children described naked adults forcing them to take off their clothes.
The police gave assurances Friday that they were examining the allegations. So far, they have not publicly commented on their veracity. Parents were taking action nonetheless. On Thursday, dozens gathered outside the kindergarten to demand answers. Others came to pull their children out and demand a refund on tuition.
“Right now my wife and I don’t know if we should believe the allegations, but there is no way we would feel safe to put our daughter here,” said Zhang Zhiqiang, whose 2-year-old was in an early education course at the kindergarten that cost more than $2,700 a year.
“This kindergarten is very popular in our neighborhood. It’s competitive to secure a seat,” he said, adding, “I saw the news yesterday and decided our daughter will no longer spend any time here.”
Throughout Friday, dozens of people stood outside the kindergarten gate, most of them nearby residents. Later in the afternoon, about 20 guards came to provide security just before parents arrived to pick up their children. Most parents quickly walked away, ignoring questions from reporters and shielding their children’s faces.
The kindergarten is operated by RYB Education (the letters stand for red, yellow and blue), a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange that directly operates 80 kindergartens across China and has franchise operators for 175 more.
“Our professional and high-quality teachers and principals and, more important, our established system to effectively train, grow and retain teaching staff and management talents underpin our high-quality education services,” the company said in its prospectus.
But two of the company’s kindergartens in China have been accused of harming children, compounding the assumption among some people that there must be some truth to the latest allegations.
In 2015, four teachers at a RYB Education kindergarten in Siping, northeast China, were charged with using sewing needles to jab more than 20 children on their heads, mouths and limbs, supposedly as punishment. They were convicted this past April, and each sentenced to two and a half years or longer in prison.
In another episode, Chinese media reports said this year that a teacher shown on a video kicking a child worked at an RYB Education kindergarten in north Beijing. The company issued an apology and said it would engage in “deep reflection” about the abuse.
The problems are not unique to the company. This month a child-care center in Shanghai unrelated to RYB was suspended after three employees were caught on video pushing a young girl to the ground and force-feeding a boy what his parents said was mustard.
Since 2010, news media and internet sites have reported more than 60 such cases of physical abuse at Chinese kindergartens and child care facilities, Caixin, the respected Chinese business news outlet, reported.
RYB Education said Friday that three teachers whose class was at the heart of the allegations had been suspended and video surveillance footage of the kindergarten handed to the police. The company said that it would cooperate fully with investigators but also that it had complained to the police about the “slanderous accusations.”
“We will never tolerate criminal conduct by anyone,” the company said. “If any culpability rests with the company or kindergarten, we will never shirk it.”