Authorities Investigate Fight Club for Orphaned Teenagers
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2017-07-24 11:35:24

A mixed martial arts (MMA) club that houses and trains orphaned teenagers is under police investigation after a video circulated online over the weekend showed children fighting each other to the applause of onlookers.

The video has triggered discussion about the precarious lives of China’s orphans, the legitimacy of their adoption by a privately owned club, and whether school-age children should be trained in mixed martial arts in the first place.

The six-minute clip was posted by digital news platform Pear Video on Thursday. It spotlights the lives of orphans adopted by Enbo Fight Club in Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan Province. The club’s founder, a 46-year-old former police officer named Enbo, has raised more than 400 children over the last decade. Undergoing rigorous physical training, Enbo’s kids sometimes duel in public plazas, coming away bloody and bruised.

“These children are fighting for their destinies — they are living much more toilsome, touching, and difficult lives than your children,” a narrator says over footage of a fierce battle between two 12-year-old children. “They pour their lives into this career. I wish everyone would treat them kindly.”

“I get up early, train, take a shower, and go to sleep. When I wake up, I begin training again,” a 14-year-old boy named Xiaolong told Pear Video’s reporter. When asked about his parents, the boy pauses before saying, “My father is dead, and my mother is gone.”

Another teenage boy, Xiaowu, has had a similar experience: Without parents, he was sent by his grandmother to Enbo’s club three years ago. “My idol is Conor McGregor,” he says, referring to a garrulous MMA fighter from Ireland. “I want to keep practicing, to win the UFC gold belt.” Along the back wall of the training room, a red banner reads: “This is a crucible, a cradle of heroes.”

Xiaolong and Xiaowu have worked tirelessly to improve their skills because they can’t imagine what their lives would be like if they left the MMA club. “The food here is much better — I can eat beef and eggs. At home, I only get potatoes,” Xiaowu said. “And if I went back home, I might have to do manual labor.”

In addition to establishing his own martial arts team, Enbo, who is Tibetan, began taking in orphans and children from poverty-stricken families. With their physical abilities, some of the kids become fighting coaches, police, and security personnel when they grow up.

In the eyes of education experts, however, these children should be in the classroom and not in the ring, even though the club has said they hired a few teachers to give lessons. “The children must be sent to school to finish their compulsory education; they can be trained in martial arts afterward,” said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of Beijing-based think tank 21st Century Education Research Institute. “Authorities must conduct an investigation, taking the local education department’s responsibilities into account as well,” he told Sixth Tone, adding that he believed the club had violated the law.

Whether the adoptions were legal is also under investigation. Enbo told Pear Video that the club had the authorities’ approval to accomodate these children. Sixth Tone could not reach the municipal civil affairs bureau for comment. One of Enbo’s employees told Sixth Tone on Monday that they believed the authorities would arrive at a conclusion and refused to answer further questions.

In 2013, a fire at a private orphanage in Lankao County, in central Henan province, caused seven deaths and drew the public’s attention to the plight of orphans. After the incident, the central government started a nationwide inspection into individuals and private institutions raising orphans.

The latest official figures from 2015 indicate that there are more than 500,000 orphans in China. Government welfare institutions care for only around one-fifth of these children, while the rest must make their own way. Privately run orphanages have a hard time getting licensed, and as such sometimes do not legally register the children in their care.

In the case of Enbo’s fight club, many users on microblog platform Weibo have criticized what they perceive to be inaction by authorities. “Because the government couldn’t change these orphans’ poverty, and couldn’t raise them instead, it was their only way to go,” wrote one user.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Two teenagers fight during a mixed martial arts competition in Qingdao, Shandong province, Jan. 21, 2016. Xie Hao/IC)