n mid-March, an online post alleged that after a month-long “undercover investigation,” parents of children attending a top private school in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, had discovered moldy and rotten food in the school canteen. The news went viral and triggered widespread concern over school food safety.
Parents of students at Chengdu No.7 Experimental High School staged protests outside the school, prompting authorities to launch an investigation. But investigators insisted the photos in the online post were faked, and three people were detained for spreading false information. Police said security camera footage showed them entering the canteen storehouse and trampling on food before they took the photos. Authorities sent 929 students to hospital for check-ups, and three students were hospitalized for unrelated conditions.
Tests on 18 batches of food supplied to the school’s canteen were found to meet food quality standards, while one batch of noodles was moldy. Tests conducted on food in canteens of five other schools that share the same supplier found no problems. Authorities said the issues of food safety were less serious than alleged. Nevertheless, the school’s principal was fired.
Still, the parents are skeptical over the official investigation. NewsChina could not independently verify the claims from either side, but even so, the problems found should not be taken lightly. More importantly, the government should be aware that the events reflect a growing public anxiety over food safety in China’s schools against a backdrop of increasing privatization in the sector.
Established in 2003, Chengdu No.7 is one of the first private high schools in the city. With annual tuition fees of 33,600 yuan (US$5,000), it’s one of the most expensive in a city where the average annual wage is 65,000 yuan (US$9,700). Although the school said it is a non-profit, few believe such a claim at a time when the education sector has become one of the most bankable sectors in China.
With inadequate public spending in education, the Chinese government has long called for
“industrialization” of the sector, encouraging private investment to fill the gap between public spending and the demand for education resources. However, without a mature and effective regulatory system, the increasingly privatized education sector is out for profits, which not only makes schools vulnerable to abuse and neglect, but is eroding trust in schools and regulators.
In 2017, a series of child abuse scandals involving RYB Kindergartens, a publicly listed company, led to a major outcry. In November, the State Council announced that companies that run kindergartens were forbidden to go public. But the recent scandal shows that ad hoc measures like this will do little to boost public confidence and trust.
To address the issue, the authorities must take a systematic approach. First, the government should continue to increase spending on education to meet demands.
Authorities must realize their fundamental responsibility is to provide education of sufficient quality for all. While private investment can play an important supplementary role, there must be effective regulation. When encouraging private investment to enter the sector, government could use private firms to merely procure ancillary services, like food, rather than to establish two distinct school systems, public and private.
Schools and regulators need to increase the transparency surrounding their regulation and management. One important approach is to increase public participation in the management of school affairs. This is perhaps the most direct and effective way to restore public confidence and trust in kindergartens and schools.
In the end, with its agenda of “industrializing” the education sector, authorities must resist the race to profits at all costs. Failure to do so will not only corrupt the entire educational system, but will lead to the lowering of ethical standards of society across the board, which will eventually jeopardize China’s political stability.