China’s bullying problem in spotlight after teenager’s death

·5-min read

Three days after he went missing, thirteen-year-old Ke Liangwei’s body was found in the wilderness on October 26. The young teenager had drowned.

Then last week, his story took a dark twist that casts new light on his death and shines a spotlight on China’s bullying problem. A video emerged of a peer slapping the boy in the face and knocking him to the ground in a restroom while several other students looked on and cheered.

It was only after the boy went missing that his family learned that the teenager, a secondary school student from Maoming city in southern China’s Guangdong province, had repeatedly been physically bullied at school, including the day before his disappearance.

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About one-third of 10,000 schoolchildren surveyed said they had been bullied. Photo: Getty Images
About one-third of 10,000 schoolchildren surveyed said they had been bullied. Photo: Getty Images

The police and education bureau confirmed Ke’s story to the Post on Wednesday but would not draw a connection between the bullying and his death.

When Ke’s life ended in tragedy, it struck a nerve in China because of the prevalence of bullying in the country and the likelihood that the victims would remain silent.

A study from Central China Normal University in Wuhan found that about one-third of 10,000 schoolchildren from six different provinces had been bullied. Of that group, 45 per cent of them chose to “keep it a secret”.

Only about 25 per cent of the surveyed, who were aged between 6 and 18 years old, said they would tell a teacher or parent.

“The occurrence rate was a bit lower than what previous studies found, but it’s still higher than we expected,” said Fu Weidong, an associate professor from CCNU who led the research.

The survey results put China in the same class as much of the world. Unicef says that globally about one in three students aged between 13 and 15 experience bullying.

Like many countries, Chinese law does not explicitly outlaw bullying, but officials can bring charges in cases that result in severe injury or death.

However, because bullying often involves schoolchildren, they tend to be below the 14-year-old minimum age for significant criminal accountability. In cases of extreme cruelty, kids above the age of 12 can be prosecuted.

In the legal sense, “bullying” refers to physical abuse, verbal harassment and cyberbullying, as well as social bullying, such as isolating somebody on purpose.

Though the law has emphasised the protection of the victims’ rights, there are no detailed plans to help and comfort them physically and psychologically.

Wang Zhenhui, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law

Professor Wang Zhenhui, from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said a lack of concrete measures to reform bullies and help the victims, along with other factors, has meant bullying has become a persistent problem in Chinese schools.

“If the perpetrator is not educated in a timely and effective manner, their behaviour cannot be fixed. Their thoughts about bullying the weak could be encouraged, and the possibility of the person turning to more severe crimes could rise, leading to more harm to others,” he said.

In the past, Chinese society used to treat bullying as “rough housing”, not dissimilar to how American culture often dismissed bullying as “boys will be boys”. Recently, there has been a shift in the culture as public awareness of the harms of bullying increased.

In June, China enforced a Minors Protection Law that orders all schools to build a system to prevent bullying. The Ministry of Education laid out regulations specifically targeting the “protection of minors at school”, which took effect in September.

But lack of enforcement from school officials leaves many perpetrators unpunished and the victims confused about how to deal with it.

Wang said: “Though the law has emphasised the protection of the victims’ rights, there are no detailed plans to help and comfort them physically and psychologically.”

A 17-year-old girl who studies in a secondary school in Shanghai, said she has never got any form of education about school bullying from her teachers.

She said she witnessed several cases of bullying at school but did not report the incidents to a teacher or staff.

“I think what’s most important is the victim should fight back. They should ask for help from classmates or friends,” she said.

In Beijing, a 16-year old gay student from a vocational school took to social media in March after school administrators told him to endure the bullies or transfer after he reached out for help.

He said the most severe punishment imposed on the bullies was to ask eight students involved to write self-criticism letters and transcribe regulations that stipulate students’ daily behaviours.

Besides neglect from school, bullying often occurs to those whose parents fail to teach their children how to properly handle emotions and interpersonal relations, said Wang. According to the CCNU study, students from rich or powerful families are less likely to be bullied.

Wang also said more exposure to violence may have made things worse because “as compared with older generations, violent information is more diversified and accessible for schoolchildren today.”

Despite efforts to fix the bullying problem, it was too late for Ke’s family. Ke’s aunt wrote in an online post: “I cannot imagine how much torture Ke Liangwei had been through during that long period of bullying … I find it necessary to make it public so that such things will not happen again to other students.”

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