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Who Guards the Children?

Chinese legal experts and the public are calling for tougher laws and better protection mechanisms for children as cases of sexual abuse of minors in China go unpunished

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Wang Zhenhua, a real estate tycoon and chairman of Seazen Holdings, was detained by Shanghai police on July 1 on suspicion of having molested a nine-year-old girl. The high-profile case, along with other incidents involving child abuse, has yet again sparked concern over why the law in China does not do more to protect its children.  

In early July, the principal of a primary school in Suizhong, Liaoning Province, was detained on suspicion of raping a female student and molesting four other girls. Several days later, in Zhenxiong, Yunnan Province, a 14-year-old girl was found dead in a hotel room after allegedly being raped, police said, The Beijing News reported. Two suspects are in custody. 

Upset by the tragedies, many have turned to the legal system for help and expect those convicted of such offenses to receive severe punishments. But as interviewed experts told NewsChina, punishment alone cannot solve all the issues. For such criminal behavior, prevention should always be the priority. Law enforcers, courts, families, schools and social organizations should work together to shield children from sexual abuse, experts said.  

Gaps in Punishment
Many predicted that Wang, 57, might be sentenced to five years in prison as he has been charged with molestation, a lighter charge than rape. According to China’s criminal law, sex offenders who molest women shall be sentenced to no more than five years in prison, but in cases where the crime is committed “publicly in public places, with other grave circumstances, or against children,” the sentence will be harsher. Zhang Yuxia, a lawyer at Sunhold Law Firm in Shanghai, told NewsChina that if the victim sustained physical injuries during the rape, as was reported in the case of the alleged victim in Wang’s case, the punishment could be five to 10 years in prison. 

Even the harshest sentences for convicted sexual offenders are not regarded as tough enough, compared with other countries. In the US in June, a court in Alabama sentenced 37-year-old Randall Keith Midkiffin to 30 years on charges of attempted enticement of a nine-year-old girl after he tried to convince the child’s mother to let him have sex with her daughter. The mother reported Midkiffin to the police.  

Fan Xing, a lawyer at Kindall Law Firm in Shanghai, told NewsChina that the US has heavy sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders. The Jessica Lunsford Act, a law adopted in 2005 following the rape and murder of a girl, stipulates that criminals that sexually abuse children under 14 shall be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison and up to life imprisonment without parole. Besides punishing criminals, the US also takes a strict view on gateway illegal activities, such as downloading child pornography.  

“Comparatively speaking, China’s law is a bit vague and difficult to refer to during judicial practice, which makes it difficult to identify exactly what crime has been committed. It sometimes leads to situations where similar offenses are given different sentences,” Fan said.  For example, in the Criminal Law, regarding the sentence of a molestation case, there is no explanation about what constitutes “publicly in public places” or “other grave circumstances.” Fan believes the case of Wang Zhenhua should spur lawmakers to put forward clear judicial explanations. 

Tong Xiaojun, an expert in child study at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina that sentences are often lighter than expected in child abuse cases because the law does not separate adult and child victims. “Our laws mostly target adult victims. To better protect children under the law, we need a separate charge for child sexual abuse,” Tong said. Experts interviewed called for harsher penalties for sex offenders. But Zhang pointed out that simply upping the sentences might have the opposite effect.  

“The punishment should not only fit the nature of the crime, but also the circumstances and the danger an offender might pose to a victim’s safety. Take kidnapping. If kidnappers are automatically sentenced to death, they are more likely to take risks and even kill the hostage.” 

Wang Zhenhua at the 25th anniversary celebration of Seazen Holdings in July in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province

The headquarters of Seazen Holdings in Shanghai on July 5. The company has removed Wang Zhenhua as chairman, with his son Wang Xiaosong taking his place

Evidence Difficulties
A challenge to processing cases of juvenile sexual abuse has been obtaining evidence from underage victims. According to Li Ying, a lawyer from Zhong Yin Law Firm in Beijing, in many cases she handled, the victims did not realize the impact of the abuse they suffered until they grew up, and the resulting overwhelming pain will affect them for life.  

To help juvenile victims hold offenders accountable after they become adults, since 2017, the statute of limitations does not start until a victim has reached 18. But it remains hard to obtain objective and direct evidence in such cases. The defendants usually refuse to plead guilty. And underage victims easily lose track of time and details or confuse reality and imagination in narrating the cases. 

“Many cases of rape have to be charged on the lesser crime of molestation due to the difficulty in getting evidence,” Zhang said.  

Sun Xuemei, who started a foundation named Protecting Girls, told NewsChina that in 2018, there were 317 cases of child sexual abuse involving 750 victims reported in the media. But this number is just the tip of the iceberg, as many cases are never reported. 

Shanghai police revealed that in the case of Wang Zhenhua, another suspect, a woman only identified as Zhou, served as Wang’s pimp. Zhou, 49, is accused of taking two girls, aged nine and 12, to a five-star hotel in Shanghai, the South China Morning Post reported. There was probably a whole ring that conspired to supply child victims to the offender, experts said. According to Tong, in the case of Wang, the tragedy might have been prevented by restraining and cracking down on the offenders and the organizers and by alerting the guardians. Tong believes that many cases happened due to negligence of the guardians. 

Using punishment as a deterrent is not enough to deal with guardians’ negligence. As Zhang said, the justice system steps in only after the abuse has happened. In preventing such abuse, laws and regulations about the protection of the rights and interest of minors are more relevant. 

“When a guardian fails to perform their duty or even infringes on the rights of minors, it involves the deprivation of custody. Ten years ago, when I came across such circumstances I couldn’t do anything as there were no legal grounds [for removal]. Now there are cases of deprivation of custody in many places across the country. It’s a big judicial advance,” Zhang Yuxia said. China’s Law on the Protection of Minors (1991), currently under revision, will add new content including defining the responsibilities of guardians and conditions under which that guardianship can be withdrawn.  

Currently, China has two laws to protect children’s rights: the Law on Protection of Minors and the Law on the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (1999). But the articles of the two laws are regarded as too general and vague, focusing more on principles and lacking enforceability in practice.  

For example, Tong said that the two laws demand people in certain posts perform some duties, but fails to endow these people with the right to do so. She called for teaching universities to add courses on child protection to teach future educators how to protect children’s interests and spot child endangerment issues and report them.  

Tong said that lawmakers should clarify the responsibilities of departments, and put forward measures that match the law. She proposed building an organization specializing in child protection, an indispensable part of child protection in developed countries.  

“We don’t have one right now, but it’s on the way,” Tong said. She said that she expects the government to transform help centers for homeless children into protection centers for all minors. 

Repeat Offenders
NGOs are way ahead of the government in exploring ways to better protect children. Sun said that Protecting Girls has been raising public awareness about how to prevent sexual abuse. Its instructions have reached more than three million children and 520,000 parents. Every year during the annual sessions of China’s top legislative and advisory bodies, the organization submits proposals via representatives and committee members to help improve the laws. Supervising sex offenders and restricting their behavior after their release is an issue in China, as it is reported that the rate of reoffending among sex offenders is usually high. 

“Many child sex offenders commit crime out of a psychological need, which cannot be changed by imprisonment, so it is not proper to just release them [without restrictions],” Zhang said. In Alabama in June, the state governor signed into a law a measure that stipulates some sex offenders who abuse children under 13 will need to undergo chemical castration – testosterone-suppressing medication – before being paroled until a judge says otherwise, The Washington Post reported. Russia, Poland and South Korea also use chemical castration for some sex offenders. In many countries, people who have a history of sex abuse against minors need to sign a sex offenders register, have to tell people their history in the community in which they live, are forbidden to enter certain work areas or live within a certain distance of a school and have to wear electronic ankle monitors. 
According to Li, China could put forward such measures. But the country is relatively slow in the process of restraining sex offenders from reoffending compared with other countries.  

Tong Xiaojun attributes this to inadequate legislation and publicity and society’s tolerance of sex offense. “I describe it as a people’s war. We must let everyone know that children are untouchable, what kinds of behavior violate the law and that people who break the law are not tolerated,” Tong said.  

Li hopes the Wang Zhenhua case will press China to build a comprehensive legal mechanism to deal with child sexual abuse, from early prevention to the post-imprisonment restrictions. Li cited Megan’s Law (1996) in the US, which makes information about registered sex offenders available to the public, and South Korea’s Dogani Bill (2011), which abolished the statute of limitations for abuse against minors and the disabled as examples of legislation which could be adopted in China.  

“Megan’s Law and South Korea’s Dogani Bill all came out at the cost of the victims’ pain, blood and life. We’ve already had enough of such pain in China,” Li said.