A Father Reflects on Bullying in Chinese Schools
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2016-04-21 04:19:13

Another day, another incident. It has occasionally crossed my mind how appealing it would be to enlist the services of the mafia on the evenings my son Jimmy has come home from school, head down, shoulders slumped. He is a victim of bullying, and the idea of giving bullies a taste of their own medicine is certainly satisfying. But of course, it’s all a fantasy. And even if I weren’t a lawful citizen, the godfather probably has more important things on his plate than schoolyard troubles. Nevertheless, bullying is a serious problem in China, and it warrants immediate attention.

A lover of history, Jimmy spends too much time with his nose stuck in books far beyond the scope of his school curriculum. His focus on the humanities distracts him and has resulted in report cards with poor grades in mathematics and the sciences — the main subjects by which students are judged in China. Many of the students in my son’s class who had outperformed him in these disciplines taunted him, calling him a fool for spending so much time on “useless” subjects.

My son is a lone hermit on campus; too few of his generation share his range of interests. He has always received top marks in his class for history and politics, but in China nothing counts beyond one’s performance in three core subjects: mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Chinese and English language classes are also important to a lesser degree, but success in these is viewed as an easier achievement since they rely more heavily on rote memorization than on understanding complex theories, as in math and science.

In China, cases of serious bullying are often resolved simply by monetary compensation from the perpetrator’s family — although many cases go unacknowledged completely.

Jimmy’s plight was aggravated by the fact that the private junior high school he attends places a lot of pressure on students through daily exams and “streamed” classes. Differentiated by exam results, each class is split into an A and a B stream. The children considered by the school to be inferior students, the B group, must leave the classroom for certain subjects and shamefully march down the hallway to receive separate instruction. This is allegedly to help everyone learn at a pace better suited to their needs, but in reality it results in peer pressure benefitting the students in the higher stream. In spite of his excellent performance in the humanities, my son was streamed into the B class.

One of the first instances of bullying occurred one morning in the staircase behind the school gymnasium. After physical education class, the boys and girls were feeling rowdy on their way back to the classroom. It was during this commute that a gang of three from the B stream harassed my son, with one blocking his path as the other two tried to pull down his pants.

The skirmish escalated in the next class. Fed up with the gang of three’s unceasing torment, my son finally retaliated as best he could. Jabbing out an accusatory finger, he drew on his history books and cried, “You bourgeois capitalist pig-dogs!” This was enough of an insult for one of the gang to lunge forward and snap his glasses in two.

The teacher was quick to step in, although not because of bullying, but rather because property had been damaged. She called the father of the perpetrator, brokered a compensation, and left it at that. No speech to the students warning against bullying. No apologies from the students or their families. No assurances that it wouldn’t just happen again the next day. “Here’s some money, kid, now stop whining and go get yourself a new pair of glasses.”

Disputes being solved with a quick monetary compensation is common practice in China. The rationale is that it saves time for the perpetrators, victims, and mediators, but in many cases it leaves the deeper causes of the problems unresolved. Property damage is the easiest to settle, since a specific price can be placed on an item like a pair of glasses.

Fast forward one year. One of the final instances of bullying occurred in the school toilets. The gang of boys trapped Jimmy, and he was forced duck and dodge dirty underwear hurled at him, before almost losing his balance and stepping into a squat toilet.

Instead of dealing with the situation directly, his mother and I again relied on the class teacher to resolve the issue. She responded strongly to the bullying, declaring that no harm should be done to anyone in her class. The gang of three assembled in the school disciplinary office, their parents were informed, and apologies from the guilty students were demanded. Thankfully, this teacher realized the importance of fighting against bullying.

There is no official data that shows how out of hand school bullying is becoming on Chinese campuses, nor any in-depth analyses of which demographics are the most vulnerable. But a report published by China Newsweek — a Chinese-language magazine that reports on current affairs — looked into 43 serious cases in the last two years.

The report found that students are most susceptible to bullying from peers in the junior middle school age range of 12 to 15 years old — my son’s demographic. Occurrences of bullying are much lower among students in primary school, senior middle school, and university.

Tong Xiaojun, director of the Child and Adolescent Research Institute at the China Youth University for Political Studies in Beijing, said that bullying doesn’t just mean students physically harming one another. “It’s one or a group of students eliciting verbal, physical, or emotional assaults on their classmates,” Tong said. The violence hurts the victims even if the bruises don’t come from an actual fistfight.

School bullying in China has been gaining media attention over the past year, as videos of violence between students have been picked up by international media outlets. In February, three teenage Chinese students living overseas in California were formally sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 to 13 years for a severe bullying incident that occurred in the spring of 2015. This incident sparked online debate among Chinese netizens over how much more needs to be done in terms of educating the younger generation on bullying.

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors, the top judicial weapon against violations of the rights of minors in China, has failed to rein in school bullying.

Chen Li of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China said that police should be deployed on campus so they can spot and prevent school bullying as soon as it occurs. He also called for a revamp of the protection of minors law that would make offenders criminally liable at an earlier age.

In June 2015 Chen created an account on China’s microblogging platform Weibo to allow people to more easily report instances of bullying. The account has already generated nearly 10 million page views. More than 15 million people follow Chen’s Weibo account, making him one of the most well-known arbiters in China.

So far in China, offenders under 14 years old are exempt from criminal punishment, and are only prosecuted between 14 to 16 years old when guilty of a felony. This is why most cases of bullying on campuses, particularly in junior middle schools, are settled with nothing more significant than a quick call to parents, a swift apology, and the occasional monetary compensation. Bullying must be viewed as a serious problem affecting schools and treated as such, but for the moment educators continue to be happy to settle individual occurrences quickly and quietly so that they can continue concentrating on the grades of their students.

(Header image: Students gather on a playground for a flag-raising ceremony at a middle school in Shanghai, Nov. 5, 2012. Carlos Barria/Reuters)