The mood among staff on the Xinhua photo desk must have been very retro last week, when President Xi Jinping attended an event ahead of International Children’s Day on June 1.
Keen to commemorate Xi’s visit in suitable fashion, Xinhua’s photographers opted for a tried-and-tested style that dates back decades.
In fact, the images of the Chinese president in action look like they have been lifted out of a textbook on Communist iconography, with Xi and a little girl in a white dress replicating a famous poster of Mao being presented with a red scarf by a group of Young Pioneers (see images below).
But if these saccharine pictures were intended to stir up a nostalgic mood, they failed rather miserably.
Instead the Children’s Day holiday – only really celebrated by communist and post-communist nations – acted as a lightning rod for public anger about a series of recent incidents in which children have been mistreated, abused and even killed.
The month of May began with news that two girls from Hubei province had died after eating yogurt laced with rat poison. The drink had been poisoned as part of a plan by a rival kindergarten to attract more students.
Over the next three weeks various cases of sexual abuse at the hand of teachers and civil servants emerged across different parts of the country too. The most shocking saw a headmaster from the southern island of Hainan abduct six of his female students aged between 11 and 14 so that he and other men could have sex with them.
The month ended with perhaps the most dramatic story: that an unwed mother from the eastern province of Zhejiang had given birth to a baby boy in a public bathroom. For reasons that remain unclear, the newborn baby was then flushed down the toilet and ended up lodged into a sewage pipe.
Images of him being cut free made news bulletins all over the world.
One widely forwarded message by popular blogger Zuoyeben on Sina Weibo summed up the public mood as the holiday approached: “Happy Children’s Day to the strongest generation in history. You have to avoid poisonous milk, endure formaldehyde toys, digest cadmium rice, escape being trafficked, take dangerous school buses, survive jerry-built classrooms, escape lustful security guards and headmasters and overcome abusive teachers. If you can survive all of this you will be the strongest. I hope that on your holiday the whole country will see rain so at least you can breathe one day of fresh air.”
Another response to President Xi’s call for “actions that harm children’s rights and well-being to be stamped out” was rather more terse: “Talk is useless. We need laws. When will they do it?”
Elsewhere, debate focused on the loopholes in the legal system that have allowed perpetrators to sidestep charges of child rape and plead guilty to a lesser crime of ‘inducing a child into prostitution”.
Another topic being discussed was the weakness of sex education in Chinese schools, after a survey published by the Beijing News showed that 43% of children in the capital do not have access to sex education even though 90% of parents would like them to receive it.
In the past, schools have refused to teach the topic because it was deemed too ‘un-Chinese’ or likely to encourage promiscuity.
“Sex education will not cause children to grow up faster. Children already develop faster sexually now and teaching of this subject lags too far behind. Sexual education should, at the very least, teach children what behaviour is dangerous and how to protect themselves. It would also teach them to be brave and say no when they are facing assault,” the newspaper suggested.
What it didn’t say was that better sex education might have helped to prevent cases such as the baby rescued from the sewer pipe in Zhejiang. His mother’s pregnancy was unplanned and she was unable to afford an abortion.
She claims that the little boy fell into the toilet by accident and the police seem prepared to believe this version of events. Amazingly, the baby survived his ordeal with only a few bruises and scrapes.
After a couple of days in hospital he was released into his grandparents’ care, on the eve of the International Children’s Day holiday.
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