BEIJING, March 21 -- China's record on child safety is once again under fire after suspected food poisoning in a rural kindergarten in southwest China's Yunnan Province killed two pupils and left 30 hospitalized on Wednesday.
This latest development came at a sensitive time, as China's preschool managers have also been criticized for failing to stop teachers illegally administer antiviral drugs to pupils.
Over the past few days, several kindergartens in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, northeastern Jilin and central Hubei provinces have been accused of feeding pupils moroxydine, a prescribed drug that fights the flu virus. While the schools were allegedly motivated by wanting to guarantee attendance, some kids felt sick after taking the drug.
A parent surnamed Zhang from Xi'an of Shaanxi felt very puzzled. "So many unexpected things have happened to our kids, like tainted milk, avoidable school bus crashes and child abuse. We do not know who can be trusted."
The cases Zhang mentioned have set alarm bells ringing in China and ushered in reforms in certain areas.
The reputation of Chinese dairy products was seriously undermined by a scandal in 2008, when unscrupulous Chinese milk producers were found to have mixed melamine with their products to cheat protein content tests.
The incident led to the deaths of at least six Chinese babies and left another 300,000 ill. Even today, Chinese authorities and the milk industry are still working to restore consumer confidence.
In 2011, 19 preschoolers died after a nine-seat school van carrying 64 people collided head-on with a coal truck in northwest China's Gansu Province. The accident prompted authorities to launch a nationwide overhaul of school transportation.
Meanwhile, a spate of sexual assaults on minors has shocked the nation. It was reported last year that a 62-year-old primary school teacher in east China's Jiangxi Province had molested seven second-grade girls in class.
"These vicious events have threatened children's physical and mental well-being. We should reflect on how to create a safe and sound environment for them to grow up," said Shi Ying, vice president of the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences.
For Li Min, a white-collar parent of a four-year-old girl in Beijing, a safe environment for her child's upbringing means a reliable hospital in which to give birth, quality milk, and safe schools with trustworthy teachers.
"I think it is more difficult to realize this dream for low-income families in China. They cannot afford to buy milk overseas or send their kids to costly but better schools," added Li.
This was echoed by a 37-year-old parent surnamed Wang, whose child was enrolled in one of the accused kindergartens in Xi'an. He said like many parents in China, he has often given presents to teachers in the hope of securing special care for his infant.
But such gift-giving has not prevented tragedies. According to Shi Ying, more reforms should be carried out to strengthen government supervision, establish a responsibility mechanism and improve legislation.
Xiong Bingqi, deputy head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said besides criticism of legal loopholes and weak supervision, the general public should also reconsider the Chinese style of education when it comes to kindergarten drug scandals.
Chinese society famously values rote learning and puts great pressure on youngsters to succeed academically. Education on broader life issues like safety, sex and codes of conduct comes mostly in the form of abstract concepts in school text books, Xiong noted.
Meanwhile, experts point out that most Chinese parents are devoted to producing a "good" child, a characteristic developed largely through obedience. When children leave home for school, they are taught to do everything the teacher asks them to do.
According to the investigation, two accused kindergartens in Xi'an began to administer antiviral drugs to children in 2008. Li Min questioned why no pupil exposed this fact to their parents over the past five or so years. "Kids at this age are able to express themselves clearly," she pointed out.
In many cases of child sexual abuse, a similar situation has applied. The victims chose not to speak out.
"I do not want a 'good' kid at the price of depriving her of the ability to question and challenge authority to protect herself," said Li, who admitted that society should take responsibility to protect kids, but stressed that families should also think about their evaluation criteria for their offspring.
Chinese authorities issued a notice on Tuesday requiring education and health departments from across the country to carry out inspections of kindergartens and primary and middle schools to see whether any are forcing students to take medicine without permission.
"We expect more reforms to put children's safety first. Everyone paid attention to certain scandals when they were exposed. But afterward our actions should also speak louder than words," Xiong Bingqi said.