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Publication Date : 02-02-2014
How age-old cultural preferences and government policies have led to problems of baby dumping, child trafficking and other abuses in China
Mother of two Cui Jinfeng, 30, cuts a plump figure and has an infectious smile. Her cheerful demeanour belies a sad past - right after her birth, she was dumped next to a lamp post in a village in northern Hebei province.
She says she would have perished if a farmer had not stumbled on the wailing baby, umbilical cord still attached, and taken her home.
Although the farmer and his wife had two sons aged 13 and 12, they raised the infant as their own child. The family marked her birthday on the date she was found, the eighth day of the second lunar month in 1984.
"Without my adoptive parents, I would not have survived that day," Cui told The Sunday Times in their home in Anping county, which comes under Hengshui city.
"Sometimes I wonder why my own mother did such a cruel thing to me. She should have just gone for an abortion, instead of abandoning me."
Sadly, baby dumping remains a serious problem in China, just one of many forms of child abuse.
Doctors in hospitals are known to sell newborn babies to human trafficking syndicates and teachers have been charged with sexually abusing their young charges. Knife-wielding attackers have also targeted children to get maximum media coverage for their cause.
If anything, such incidents show a low regard for children in some parts of China. At the other extreme are the spoilt and over-indulged "little emperors", the children of the country's strict one-child policy.
From bad to worse
Unless it is tackled adequately, child abuse could have far-reaching ramifications for Chinese society. There are no official figures on how serious the problem is, say observers such as child protection expert Tong Xiaojun of the China Youth University for Political Sciences.
For instance, Chinese media has for years been reporting that about 100,000 newborn babies are abandoned each year and 200,000 babies or minors are abducted, with only 0.1 per cent ever reunited with their families.
"We have no idea where the media got these numbers. No one has conducted scientific research to study and track these abuses because it is deemed embarrassing to reveal how serious the problem is," said Dr Tong. "But we can assume that these figures are lower than the actual number as victims and their families may not want to make a report or know where to go to get help."
In the absence of hard figures, observers look for signs - such as ramped-up government measures and the frequency of media reports - to gauge the seriousness of the situation.
For example, the government last year allowed welfare homes to set up 19 "baby-dumping centres" across China.
Sexual abuse of children appears to be rising too, with figures from the Chaoyang district court in Beijing showing an average of nine cases a year between 2008 and 2012, up from three in 2007.
Over a 20-day period from May last year, at least eight cases involving teachers sleeping with students, some as young as eight, were reported.
In a brazen case, school principal Chen Zaipeng was caught with four schoolgirls - all under 14 - in a hotel room on Hainan island. He was sacked and charged with rape.
Media reports of violence against children are also on the rise, with family members often the perpetrators.
A four-year-old boy was beaten by his father and dumped into a rubbish bin in southern Guangzhou city on January 18, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported. The man even used a shovel to try to push the boy into the bin. The boy was saved by passers-by and the father was arrested.
Last year saw babies thrown from high-rise blocks in three separate incidents.
Where is the love?
Various factors account for the deplorable treatment of children, the chief of which are legal loopholes and lenient punishment.
For instance, someone convicted of raping a girl under the age of 14 can face the death penalty. But those who rape a boy under 14 are charged with molestation, which carries a maximum sentence of five years' jail. Also, the law states that child molestation charges apply to only victims under 14, which means older boys have no legal protection.
Others cite ignorance among parents as a reason. For instance, the belief that boys do not suffer sexual abuse was debunked by a report last July by Guangdong's Centre for Disease Control which showed twice as many boys as girls were forced to have sex.
The millions of rural migrants who leave their villages in search of jobs in big cities also leave behind some 60 million children.
Dubbed "left-behind kids", many of these children are neglected by their guardians and vulnerable to abuse.
Observers also point at China's one-child policy as a reason for some of the abuse. They say it has led to a preference for boys - especially among rural people intent on perpetuating the family line.
The result is China's lopsided gender balance of 117 boys for every 100 girls, higher than the global average of 103 to 107, which shows that many baby girls are aborted or are the victims of infanticide.
Other baby girls are abandoned like Cui was. "I'm a healthy person with no birth defects. The only reason for my plight is that I was not born a male," she told The Straits Times' weekend edition The Sunday Times.
The costs of inaction
Observers believe China has finally begun taking notice of the child abuse problem.
It is due to release new guidelines this year to enhance its guardian system. Custody rights of irresponsible parents will be revoked, among other things, to protect the children.
But some say China needs to act faster. Victims and often their families grow to hate the perpetrators of crimes against the children, and blame society at large.
Liu Junming, 34, of Guangdong's Meizhou city, believes his four-year-old son was abducted on Dec 31, 2012. He feels only hatred towards the kidnappers. "They don't know the pain we suffer whenever we miss our children and crying is like shedding blood, instead of tears," he said.
Abuse often casts a long shadow over the young person's life.
A Guangdong native, who wanted to be known only as Dan, told The Sunday Times she wants to find her parents to ask why they dumped her in Leizhou city in 1987 when she was just 17 days old.
"I know the odds are low, but I cannot live my life normally without knowing the reason," said Dan, who was adopted by passers-by and is now married with two girls aged five and seven, and working as an odd-job labourer.
Some warn that a prevalent child abuse problem could indirectly undermine China's goal of boosting the nation's population to counter the effects of a rapidly greying society. Some couples may be deterred from having children to avoid the problem, they say.
The government, Dr Tong said, would also have to shoulder the cost of caring for China's "broken" children and parents, costs which may be passed on to taxpayers.
Ultimately, said Cui, the government must do more to tackle child abuse.
"I don't think I'm pitiful as I have enjoyed the love of my brothers and parents all these years. Sometimes I think my parents treat me better than they treat my brothers. But not everyone is as lucky as me."
'More can be done to protect children and their rights'
China has taken a number of measures to protect its children following media exposes on abuse or abandonment cases in recent years, say observers.
The government has set up 19 infant shelters across the country. It has also launched some 20 pilot projects to ensure that the children of convicts on death row or serving lengthy jail terms are taken care of, according to a news report early this month. Between 2009 and 2011, a nationwide police operation rescued some 18,000 abducted children.
Last October, the courts were ordered to mete out harsher punishments to those convicted of sex offences against minors. This came in a joint communique issued by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the public security Ministry and the justice ministry.
Despite the steps taken, some observers say the government could still do much more, such as ensuring more schools have sex education classes.
Education expert Xiong Bingqi, who has studied minor rights protection, believes one key step is to enforce a guardianship system which will allow the government to take children away from their abusive or irresponsible parents and place them with legal guardians.
The system will also discharge guardians of their roles should they fail to perform, he adds.
A 1991 law on protection of minors says that if "a minor whose legitimate rights are infringed, he himself, his guardian, or other organisations as well as individuals have the right to complain to the relevant authorities".
But it is unclear who the "relevant authorities" are and who should be responsible for handling the cases once abuse is reported.
Child protection expert Tong Xiaojun says the problem stems from the lack of a ministry dedicated to protecting children and their rights. "Currently, the civil affairs ministry looks after only homeless children and orphanages, leaving child abuse issues to other ministries," says Dr Tong of the China Youth University for Political Sciences.
"For instance, the task of enforcing the minors protection law is spearheaded by the Communist Youth League (the youth wing of the Communist Party) which we know is more focused on political work than child protection."
Dr Tong says the most important step is for the government to make a paradigm shift. "The thinking now is that families are responsible for the children and the government should not intervene.
"We need to start thinking of children as the country's assets that need to be protected when their families fail to provide a safe, conducive environment."
Only then will the government be prepared to act, like toughening laws or pouring resources into training social workers in child protection work, she adds.
Similarly, Professor Xiong believes the government does not lack the tools to tackle the problem. The question is whether it lacks the will and vision.
"A country's attitude towards its children reflects its attitude towards its future," he says.
Traumatised children could turn vindictive when they grow up or may have problems having a normal relationship with others.
"A society that has too many of such broken people can only pose problems in the future," Xiong adds.