Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:28 AM CST – China

Special Report

Campus Bullying

Victims of Silence

Video footage of violence on Chinese school campuses has provoked public alarm, with some calling for criminal prosecution of the worst offenders. Experts, however, believe that society, not the law, needs to take responsibility

A 14-year-old student from a middle school in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, suffered major head injuries after being beaten by two of his classmates on December 18, 2013 Photo by CFP

Lacking a comprehensive protection system, children and teenagers are often exposed to violence on school campuses Photo by IC

An eight-year-old boy squats in the corner of an abandoned bungalow, his head buried in his hands, while two older boys violently kick and punch him. One of his assailants, seemingly deaf to the resulting screams, pushes a lit cigarette down the back of the little boy’s collar. While their victim begs them to stop, his bullies simply renew their attack, laughing.

This recent clip, depicting an assault by three middle school students (one of whom was behind the camera) in Qingyuan, Zhejiang Province, has outraged a considerable number of Chinese netizens since it first appeared on the Internet. The three bullies, all of whom are minors, were admonished by local police and asked to pay compensation to the victim, a punishment many felt was excessively light, considering the brutality of the attack.

China, like many countries, typically places a higher priority on education rather than prosecution in cases relating to minors. Despite clauses criminalizing “causing malicious injury” and “verbal abuse” already extant in the country’s Criminal Law, Chinese teenagers aged under 14 are exempt from all criminal penalties. Offenders aged between 14 and 16 are also exempted from criminal penalty, with exceptions made in serious cases involving murder, rape, robbery or drug trafficking. Felons aged between 16 and 18 at the time they commit a crime are also usually given lighter punishments than those handed down to adults.

While many educational experts worldwide believe that, in terms of juvenile crime, prevention is always more effective than punishment, hard-line views on crime among China’s public mean that the sympathetic treatment of criminals, even minors, generally receives short shrift. In the past three months, China has seen a total of 26 cases of “extreme” campus bullying exposed, many of which would, were the perpetrators adults, have led to criminal prosecution. A recent survey conducted by State publication China Youth Daily showed that over 73 percent of respondents believed that campus bullying or violence between minors in China in general, had happened “around them.”

Just three days before the Qingyuan case became public, a case in California which saw three Chinese-born high school students kidnap and torture two of their classmates, with those accused facing possible life sentences due to US torture laws, also led to an outcry in China. Once the Qingyuan case emerged, Chinese netizens began to call for harsher punishments for underage criminals to serve as a deterrent to potential bullies.

Sociologists and psychologists, meanwhile, believe that tough laws will not solve the problem. Instead, they have urged Chinese parents, schools and society as a whole to take the lead in preventing campus violence – which, they claim, the US has also done.


While minors exposed as violent bullies may be the focus of public criticism, it is widely believed that they too might be victims of violence. Numerous reports have emerged in Chinese media concerning both the emotional neglect and material “overindulgence” of children growing up as part of China’s One Child Policy generation. Some experts claim that, lacking education and communication within their own families, children and teenagers are inclined to form “gangs” in order to combat their loneliness and confusion.

“Gangs provide the conditions for campus bullying to occur,” Guo Xinxin, a director of the Guangzhou-based youth advocacy NGO Youth Zone, told NewsChina. “If a member is bullied, the other members of their gang will counterattack. Conversely, if a member wants someone else bullied, their fellow gang members will join in.”

There is mounting evidence that China’s most extreme cases of campus bullying, at least those profiled in the media, are increasingly being conducted by fixed groups of people rather than random incidents between individuals. In 2006, the China Youth & Children Research Center launched an independent investigation into campus bullying in a western Chinese city. During their investigation, the center’s workers discovered that 51 percent of schools they had surveyed documented incidents of bullying on campus, and that more than 36 percent of these incidents involved “school gangs.” Two years previously, a similar survey conducted among middle school students by China Youth Daily revealed that 25 percent of male and 4 percent of female respondents said that they were “willing to join a school gang.”

These school gangs are believed to be more common among Chinese students studying abroad who are generally isolated from other sources of support, particularly their families. Zhai Yunyao, one of the defendants in the campus bullying case in California, for example, was reportedly the leader of such a “gang,” members of which Zhai regularly sent to “deal with” anyone who she believed had offended her.

The three attackers in the Qingyuan case, meanwhile, though not in the same class, often cut class at the same time, and became acquainted on the streets while playing hooky.

Another feature of violent incidents between students on Chinese school campuses that has come under scrutiny is the tendency of Chinese parents to attempt to hush up, rather than confront, their child’s violent behavior. One parent in the California torture case, for example, was later detained on bribery charges after attempting to pay hush money to one of the victims.

In many cases, including the Qingyuan assault, Chinese parents are completely unaware of their children’s violent tendencies, with multiple sources saying that the Qingyuan bullies’ parents all ran businesses and felt that amply feeding their offspring demonstrated sufficient “care.” NewsChina also discovered that the father of at least one of the three bullies routinely used corporal punishment to discipline his son, while the victim himself was also a victim of violence at home. While there is no official data available on the extent of child abuse in China, it is believed that corporal punishment has only recently begun to fall out of favor with Chinese parents.

 “A neglectful or overindulgent home will easily spark campus bullying,” Kou Yu, a professor of psychology with Beijing Normal University, told NewsChina. “[Either] the child or teenager will imitate the violence of their parents, or their misbehavior will be condoned. Gradually, the bullies will go even further, while their victims will become more resigned to the violence.”

Kou’s views were confirmed by Wei Yi (a pseudonym), a self-identified former bully from Hunan Province, who began to assault other children after being beaten and slapped by her classmates. “When I was first bullied I asked my father for help,” she told NewsChina.”He just viewed it as an ‘ordinary fight’ between children, and questioned why it was me, and not someone else, that was being bullied.”

“I decided to get revenge by joining a powerful gang,” she continued. Wei later attempted suicide in part because of what she called her parents’ “indifference.” “From then on, I turned myself from a victim into a bully,” she said.


Wei Yi also told NewsChina that her school administration was just as indifferent as her parents. According to Wei, her mother once told her class teacher about the bullying her daughter was suffering, but the teacher took no action. Several days later, Wei claims, her bullies announced their intention to the entire class to continue to assault her. No staff members took any action, and Wei continued to be attacked.

A paper on campus bullying written by Chongqing Normal University graduate He Lan claimed that teachers are reluctant to tackle incidents of bullying involving gangs. One faculty member interviewed as part of He’s research said: “I don’t want to impact my other work for the sake of one student [victim]. Even the law will fail when its violators are so numerous.”

“I don’t think that Chinese schools have a right attitude or solution to campus bullying,” Guo Xinxin, the youth NGO director, told NewsChina. “Most schools will not intervene in campus bullying until it is publicly exposed. Even when they do [intervene], their solutions are usually very simple – they criticize or discipline the bullies. Few teachers will try to find out the root causes of conflict. Some even use violence to ‘settle’ their bullying problems.”

Zeng Junru, parent of a student in Beijing, agrees. “I used to tell my son to ask his teacher for help if someone was bullying him, but my son told me that his teacher felt bothered by him,” he said. “I have no idea how to deal with campus bullying. Should I just ask my son to hit the bullies back?”

American and European educators are required by law to stop and report incidents of violence, with severe cases even being brought to the attention of the police, Chinese schools usually bear no legal responsibility in cases of campus bullying, beyond handling occasional requests for compensation. As a result, schools attempt to gloss over even extreme violence, an attitude which further encourages bullies and gangs.

“I believe that Chinese schools attach undue weight to academic education, while moral education is almost abandoned,” said Zeng Junru.

No Regulation

While still lacking a statute dealing specifically with child abuse, China has created several laws to protect and educate minors. Besides the Law of Protecting Minors, the country’s legislature also passed the Law of Preventing Juvenile Delinquency in 1999, the text of which clearly states the steps that must be taken by schools, parents and relevant governmental departments to prevent juvenile criminality. However, given that these laws fail to clarify what, if any, punishment applies should any side fail to fulfill their stated responsibilities, they, like so many others in China, remain virtually unenforceable.

With each case of on-campus bullying that comes to light, each school and set of parents attempts to shift responsibility onto the other. When compensation is agreed, even actions regarding extreme cases of violence are typically dropped. Victims remain traumatized, and bullies go on to re-offend.

Calls for legislative penalties for negligent schools and parents are thus beginning to grow. “Laws are generally unsuccessful at solving cases of campus bullying, but I believe it will help ease the problem if the parents and schools implicated can be prosecuted for neglect,” Chen Zhonghua, director of the China Institute of International Politics and Law, remarked in an online essay.

Tong Xiaojun, director of the Children and Teenage Institute under the China Youth University of Political Studies, takes a more long-term view. “People often zero in on individual cases of campus bullying, but ignore the root causes behind them. Such discussions are too scattered and illogical to settle the problem. From children left alone by migrant parents to children abused at home, from campus bullies to street children, China lacks an overall system for the protection of minors,” he told NewsChina.

“Legislation is just a first step. We need a large group of professionals to conduct social work, particularly psychological assistance,” he added.

Tong told our reporter that most American schools are required to set up a social work team to engage in bullying prevention work on campus — measures almost entirely absent from China’s public school system. China has yet to conduct a nationwide investigation into abuse in schools, with many school administrations even demonstrating hostile attitudes toward such investigations, believing that those conducting them are attempting to blacken their reputations.

However, some remain more optimistic. “We need a platform to connect parents, the schools and students. This is a long-term task for professionals,” Guo Xinxin told NewsChina, adding that her NGO has launched bullying prevention programs in several pilot schools and has received a good response.

Perhaps a long-standing Chinese taboo surrounding violence against minors is about to be overturned. 


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