How China Turns A Blind Eye To Child Abuse

The most populous country in the world has no clear method for reporting or responding to abuse of its most vulnerable. Child welfare organizations fight to make a change.

Children in Haikou, Hunan Province
Children in Haikou, Hunan Province
Lan Fang

BEIJING — For years, 11-year-old Lily suffered cruel corporal punishment at the hands of her mother. She was also deprived of meals, an education and kind words. But after more than two months of work, the Children’s Hope Foundation finally obtained an agreement and signature from her mother to be allowed to help the child. It is one of the rare cases in China when, thanks to the intervention of press and police, a civic organization has been able to rescue a physically abused child.

Lily has a twin sister, who stayed with their mother from birth while Lily was sent to live with her grandparents until she was three years old. Being divorced and under great economic hardship, Lily’s mother became increasingly ill-tempered. Compared with her twin sister, Lily is said to be naughty and capricious, and very often angered her mother, who would punish her by leaving her standing at the doorway, sometimes for the whole day. Too often deprived of meals as she grew older, she had a tendency to run away. Every time the police brought Lily back, they tried preaching good sense to both mother and daughter, but the situation remained unchanged.

Out of mercy, Lily’s neighbors sometimes sent meals for her. But this practice, which went on for years, would only win them verbal abuse from the girl’s mother.

“Had this happened in the West, the neighbors would be the very first to bear the duty of reporting the child’s situation to the welfare agencies,” says Zhang Wen, founder of the Children’s Hope Foundation. But things are different in China. People who discover child abuse often don’t know where to report it, and even if they do report the abuse, it could very well lead nowhere. Before Children's Hope Foundation stepped in, the local women’s federation and the police had all urged Lily’s mother to be kinder, “but that’s all that they could do,” Zhang says.

The media paid attention

It was thanks to a neighbor’s microblogging that Lily’s story came to the attention of the Children’s Hope Foundation, which immediately visited the girl’s home accompanied by the staff of the local women’s federation. The social workers set about helping the mother around the house to obtain her trust.

“In advanced countries, social workers make up a very important part of the child protection system,” Zhang says. “When a child protection agency receives a report, social workers are sent to investigate. This is their right as well as their duty and responsibility. When the social workers consider that a child’s safety is threatened, they’ll immediately put the child in a safe place and even set in motion the procedure for depriving the parents of custody. Most parents will be able to resume their guardianship duty after some training and education. Meanwhile in China, social workers are not even entitled to interfere in cases of child abuse.” Which means that to help a child like Lily, all they can do is try their best to please her mother.

The foundation decided that the best way to help Lily was to provide concrete support to the family. They arranged psychological counselors for both Lily and her mother to improve their relationship, and sent volunteer workers to visit the family regularly. They also registered Lily in school and collected money for her school fees.

Unfortunately, the assistance didn’t develop as the foundation had hoped. In July, two days after a Beijing television station reported Lily’s story, her mother suddenly changed her attitude — perhaps due to the increased social pressure following the broadcast exposure. She refused all contact with the foundation and made it clear that Lily wouldn’t be going back to school. Not only that, but Lily received even more severe punishments and had to resort to searching through the garbage heap for food.

The situation continued until another Beijing newspaper publicized Lily’s case again. The reporter rallied the local police as well as the local education commission. Under pressure, Lily’s mother eventually agreed to let the foundation take care of Lily and return her to school.

A cruel system

In 2010, a baby girl was born at Tianjin Children’s Hospital with congenital anal atresia and several other serious problems. Even if her life was saved, she was doomed to be disabled for life. After much reflection, the baby’s family decided to forego treatment and instead send her to a hospice to die. Volunteers from Beijing heard the news, “stole” the baby girl, and returned her to Beijing with the hope of saving her life. In fact, they nicknamed her “Little Hope.” But eventually, Little Hope’s family traveled to Beijing and insisted on taking her back. The baby died two weeks later.

The Children’s Hope Foundation was one of the organizations that was involved in this very controversial relief action. In the foundation’s and their supporters’ eyes, a child’s life is sacred. But critics believe that the volunteers ignored the will of the family to see their child die in the name of love, broke the law, and brought even more suffering to the poor family.

Whether children are being refused medical treatment by their families or suffering from physical abuse, the biggest obstacle to intervention and assistance in China is the question of custody.

As Zhang Wenjuan, deputy director of the Beijing Youth Legal Aid and Research Center says, China’s Minors Protection Law stipulates that “A minor whose legitimate rights are infringed, he himself, his guardian, or other organizations as well as individuals have the right to complain to the relevant authorities.” It is unclear, though, what the “relevant authorities” are and who should be responsible for taking the cases once abuse is reported.

The law does say that the custody rights of seriously incompetent parents can be revoked after “application by relevant personnel or agencies.” As to who the “relevant” personnel or agencies are, and what the child’s placement is to involve, the law is woefully hazy.

Chinese scholars and social workers have in fact come to a consensus as to the child protection mechanisms that should be developed in China. “The first thing is to establish a clear reporting mechanism,” says Wang Le, director of Save the Children China, an international organization founded in the UK. “Then come the responses of specialized agencies.” According to Wang, it has been internationally accepted that when a child abuse case is discovered, the first step is to report it to child protection agencies. The social workers and law enforcement will then visit the family to assess the situation while the specialized agencies silmultaneously develop a response mechanism.

The greatest predicament now facing China is that problems involving children’s rights are divided among various government departments. And the authority of civil affairs agencies has been limited up to now to providing shelter or subsidies to poor children.

But Zhang Wen says there is no time to waste. “It’s a long process to perfect the legal system, but children cannot wait. Even if the law is still incomplete, as long as everybody reacts, children will be saved.”

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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