Several parents have accused a Beijing kindergarten of drugging and sexually abusing their children, causing an upswell of anger on Chinese social media and prompting an investigation into abuse at kindergartens nationwide.
Children at a school run by the Beijing-based, New York-listed RYB Education New World company reported teachers injecting them with an unidentified substance, making them swallow white pills and forcing them to strip naked, the parents told Chinese media.
Police and education officials have not confirmed the allegations. But Chinese internet users have responded with unmitigated rage, their conviction in the allegations' veracity compounded by a recent string of similar cases at Chinese kindergartens, including three this month.
"Many of us thought we'd cast off the era of barbarism, only to realize there was no way to escape," wrote one user on WeChat, China's most popular chat app, before listing several recent abuse scandals.
Parents of the RYB Education branch in Guanzhuang, a suburb in eastern Beijing, said they found needle wounds on their children's thighs, arms and buttocks. One parent said her child told her of a naked adult man, or men — referred to as "uncle doctor" and "grandpa doctor" — performing a "health check" on a naked child. Another told reporters that teachers threatened her child about reporting the abuse, warning that they had a "very long telescope" and could watch children from afar, even in their homes.
In one video posted online, a father sits on a bathroom toilet seat, cradling his child in his lap. He asks the child about white pills he reportedly took in school. The child says they put him to sleep.
"The teacher gives it to us — we have to take it every day," he says. "It tastes like white."
On Friday, police in Guanzhuang said a medical examination confirmed that the children were pricked by needles.
The allegations fit a recent pattern of suspected abuse at Chinese kindergartens and child care centers, much of it documented on school surveillance cameras and leaked online. This week, one such video showed a kindergarten teacher in southeast China's Zhejiang province slapping a little girl in front of her classmates and dragging a little boy by his neck.
In early November, leaked surveillance video showed a staff member at a Shanghai child care center pushing a little girl, causing her to topple backward and hit her head against a desk. Another video, taken at the same school, showed a child sobbing while eating a substance that parents later said was wasabi.
Also in early November, teachers at a "digital detox" camp in southeast China — an institution intended to cure children of online game addiction — were accused of whipping teenagers with steel cables and locking them in windowless cells.
Last year, police detained two teachers, also in southeast China, over accusations that they punished at least one child by jabbing him with needles.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, announced a national investigation into kindergartens on Friday "to decrease the number of such incidents."
"These incidents reflect a phenomenon in which several kindergartens are managed poorly, systems haven't been implemented and enforcement hasn't been successful," the announcement said.
RYB Education (the initials stand for "red, yellow, blue") went public on the New York Stock Exchange in late September, and has a market capitalization of $766 million. The 19-year-old company's website — which depicts happy children running beneath cartoon hot-air balloons — calls it China's largest early-childhood education service provider, with branches in more than 300 Chinese cities and 300,000 students enrolled.
"We deeply apologize for the serious anxiety this matter has brought to parents and society," RYB Education said in a statement Friday on its official, adding that it has suspended three teachers.
"We are currently working with the police to provide relevant surveillance materials and equipment; the teachers in question have been suspended, and we are cooperating with the police investigation."
The official New China News Agency suggested in an editorial that in recent scandals, low teacher wages and patchy government oversight were partly to blame. "Laws must be enforced, supervision strengthened, teacher wages increased," it said. "The child care industry cannot be allowed to grow in an uncivilized fashion."
Officials also have acted to preempt any major social unrest. Photos posted online show a crowd of police at the school on Friday. Internet censors have deleted several disturbing videos of angry parents. On Friday, Beijing's major newspapers barely mentioned the case.
Yet the allegations still went viral on social media websites in China, where decades of harsh family-planning policies have engendered a society-wide obsession with early-childhood education, and pervasive censorship and corruption have engendered a deficit of social trust.
On Thursday, the term "RYB" had more than 76 million mentions on WeChat. The top 13 stories on Weibo, its most popular microblog, concerned the case.
Many internet users drew parallels to a South Korean film called "The Crucible" (2011), which depicted a real-life case of sexual abuse at a school for the hearing impaired. The film sparked an outcry, and authorities reopened an investigation into the incident.
"I hope this is our 'Crucible' moment," wrote another WeChat user. "Hopefully our last 'Crucible' moment."
Special correspondents Gaochao Zhang and Matt DeButts in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.