Thursday, April 6, 2023

Child Welfare with Chinese Characteristics, Part II: An All-of-Society Effort

Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation 

Read Part I:  Rights & Responsibilities of Family & Schools

The revised Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of Minors (hereafter Protection of Minors Law) came into effect in June 2021, introducing 60 new articles into law. During Dui Hua’s Joint Program on Child Welfare Laws (JPCW) webinar in April 2022, experts from the United States and the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) discussed best practices for child protection legislation and the revisions to the Protection of Minors Law across six protection areas. Part I explored the roles of family and schools in child protection. This installment looks at the roles assigned to broader society, online content providers, government, and the judiciary. 

Child Protection Online

China’s regulation of youth gaming online drew international attention, partly because these measures were among the first of their kind. Even countries that balk at online censorship and lack of user privacy have expressed positive attitudes towards China’s efforts to set limits on youth online consumption. 

Much of this has been necessitated by the nation’s high internet penetration. According to the white paper Youth of China in a New Era, at the end of 2020 the number of netizens in China aged 6 to 18 reached 180 million, with the internet available to 94.9 percent of minors nationwide.  

Number of Chinese minors and internet accessibility rate from 2018 to 2020. Source: China Daily, Full Text: Youth of China in the New Era 

Online content regulations focus on reducing internet addiction and cyberbullying and combating sexual exploitation of minors. Article 74 states that internet product and service providers “shall not offer minors products and services that induce addiction,” and Article 75 specifically limits the time minors spend playing online games by minors and also restricts in-game purchases. 

During the JPCW, Li Chen, Deputy Director of the Division of Supervision of Minors’ Protection at the Child Welfare Department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, stated that the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology have created reporting channels for minor-related issues in order to help standardize reporting mechanisms and response times. The amendments require service providers to take measures to stop cyberbullying, stipulating that the parent or guardian of a minor who is cyberbullied has the right to inform service providers to delete, block, or disconnect links. If service providers are unresponsive to these complaints, the reporting channels should be leveraged to stop the illegal behavior. If found complicit or guilty, the website, individual, or platform may have their operating licenses revoked and face fines of up to one million yuan (roughly $150,000 USD). 

In May 2022, China Daily reported that prosecutors had obtained evidence of 2,584 cyberbullying cases through the compulsory reporting system since 2020 and found 1,604 cases in which staff (those working at schools, hospitals, hotels and in other industries related to minors) failed to report violations despite having compulsory reporting obligations, with 299 individuals being held accountable.  

The United States’ approach is less centralized. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 48 states or territories (including Washington, DC) include cyberbullying or electronic harassment in their anti-bullying legislation. While most states have criminal and school sanctions for cyberbullying, these laws vary by state in terms of scope. 

Former Facebook product manager Frances Heughen testifying to Congress on the effects of social media on youth mental health. Image credit: C-Span YouTube account 

In terms of online regulation, the clearest equivalent in the United States would be the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was enacted in 1998, entered into force in 2000, and was revised in 2013. COPPA places requirements on websites that are directed to children under 13, with a focus on the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information of their data. Efforts to further revise COPPA have been underway – among the most recent being the “Protecting the Information of our Vulnerable Children and Youth Act” or the “Kids PRIVCY Act” introduced in 2021 by Representative Kathy Castor (R-Fla.) – but it is unclear if these will address issues beyond data collection or those affecting adolescents older than 13. The current law has also come under fire, both for being ineffective and outdated (for example, by the CEO of NGO Common Sense Media) and for being too restrictive (Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously argued that these restrictions impede early child education). 

In 2019, China instituted restrictions on the amount of time minors could play online games to 90 minutes a day on weekdays, and minors were banned from online gaming from 10 PM to 8 AM. In 2021, online gaming for minors was restricted further to Fridays, weekends, and public holidays for one hour per day. Restrictions like these and limitations on in-game purchases for minors were meant to combat gaming addictions that state officials sometimes refer to as “spiritual opium.”  

While federal implementation of such a law is unlikely, the state of Utah recently approved the Utah Social Media Regulation Act restricting minors’ use of social media in ways that bear some similarities to China’s gaming restrictions. The bill, signed by Governor Cox in March 2023, requires minors to obtain the consent of a guardian before joining social media platforms, marking the most aggressive step yet by state or federal lawmakers to regulate minors’ online behavior. It requires social media platforms to conduct age verification for all Utah residents and provide parents’ access to their teens’ accounts. The law also bans all ads for minors and bans minors from using such sites from 10:30 PM to 6:30 AM. 

Judiciary, Government & the “China Dream” 

Included in the Protection of Minors Law is the establishment of a special juvenile court office. According to the Global Times, citing Vice President of the SPC and juvenile court office director Yang Wanming, the new office is responsible for coordinating, guiding, and managing all juvenile trials and cases.  

In an effort to implement the new office’s mandate, the Protection of Minors Law amendments impose new requirements on public security organs, procuratorates, courts, and judicial administrative departments. These include Article 101 (designating dedicated institutions and appointing dedicated personnel to handle cases involving minors), Article 103 (keeping information about minors confidential), and Articles 110 to 112 (stipulating that adult representatives be present when minors – suspects, victims, or witnesses – are interviewed by judicial organs). Article 112 in particular requires female staff be present when the minor involved is female. 

(Clockwise top left) Judge Wang, Deputy Director Li, Judge Song, and Committee Member Chen during the JPCW. Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation 

In 2021, Beijing News reported that 24,035 criminal cases involving the infringement upon the rights and interests of minors (including trafficking, child molestation, and forced begging) were tried nationwide between 2016 and 2020. Of those cases, 24,386 offenders received punishment. From 2016 to 2020, more than 1.2 million civil cases involving the upbringing and guardianship of minors were brought to trial. 

The amendments to the Protection of Minors Law speak to an increased awareness by the Supreme People’s Court and the Chinese government that China’s youth face new challenges to their welfare that require novel approaches. These amendments also call on government social service agencies to improve the quality of support received by minors without guardianship. Li Chen, speaking during the JPCW shared that in 2021 13 authorities including the Ministry of Civil Affairs – which houses the Department of Children’s Welfare Affairs – jointly issued Opinions on Further Promoting Improvement, Upgrade and Innovation-Driven Transformation of Child Welfare Institutions to Pursue High-Quality Development. The opinions aimed to improve child welfare institutions at the provincial and municipal levels, and to foster increased integration between the upbringing of children and wraparound services like community-based medical treatment, rehabilitation, education, and social work.  

The Protection of Minors Law differs from the United States' approach to juvenile justice and child welfare, which is defined both by its child-focused, rights-based approach and its federalist orientation that creates variations between states with some federal regulation. By contrast, Beijing’s top-down approach stresses uniformity, setting responsibilities for various stakeholders to ensure compliance at the local level. A lingering question is how far the law will go in holding parents, schools, and other community stakeholders responsible for violations and derogations of child welfare.  

The Youth of China in the New Era white paper paints a rosy picture of the future of child welfare in China:  

In the future, with successive efforts from one generation of young people to the next, China will scale new heights in every dimension, achieving economic, political, cultural, ethical, social, and eco-environmental progress. The Chinese people will enjoy a happier and healthier life and the Chinese nation will become a proud and active member of the community of nations. The great Chinese Dream will eventually become a reality. 

The continued emphasis on rule of law and legal responsibility is evident in the changes to the Protection of Minors Law. What is less clear is if these changes will yield a system that is fair, enforceable, and subject to rule of law in line with that Chinese Dream. 

An All-of-Society Effort

The revised Protection of Minors Law also recognizes broader societal obligations to protect minors. Article 11 grants any organization or individual "the right to discourage, prevent, or report or make an accusation against an act...which is not conducive to the physical or mental health of minors or infringes upon the lawful rights and interests of minors.” These regulations share many of the same principles as those placed on schools and educational institutions. Using sexual or physical abuse as an example, Article 9 of the Opinion on Punishing Sexual Violations of Minors in Accordance of Law (2013) states that anyone with a special responsibility to minors – including supervising, educating, training, or providing medical treatment – has a right and obligation to report to the public security organ or the people's procuratorate if they discover that a minor under their supervision has been abused.  

As with the obligations for schools, the Protection of Minors Law’s view to societal obligations has similarities to CAPTA in the United States; however, by making reporting a legal responsibility through national legislation, China’s law potentially elevates the issue and could help create a uniform process for reporting, response, and resolution. Currently in the United States, each state may or does have different definitions, processes and responses to any reported abuse, of any kind. According to a 2019 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, approximately 47 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters are those who typically have frequent contact with children. The circumstances under which a mandatory reporter must make a report, and the process for doing so, vary by state.  

President Obama signs S. 3817, the “CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010.” Image credit: Pete Souza / Official White House Photo 

According to China Daily, Chinese procuratorates nationwide prosecuted 60,553 people for crimes against minors in 2021, up 5.7 percent year-on-year, of which 27,851 were for crimes involving sexual assault against minors. The Opinions on Establishing the Compulsory Reporting System for Cases regarding Infringement on Minors (Provisional) is meant to combat this trend by standardizing the compulsory reporting procedure system and specifying the parties considered mandated reporters. The reporting procedures enabled procuratorates, public security organs, and women's federations to set up more than 1,600 "one-stop" interview and rescue areas to shield minor victims from "secondary injuries" or re-traumatization that can occur during the reporting process.  

The revisions to the Protection of Minors Law reflect renewed appreciation for the role of society in protecting minors. The European Union’s Civil Society Roadmap for China notes that the revised Protection of Minors Law makes 13 mentions of “social organizations.” Furthermore, a State Council working group was established to assist civil society organizations focused on child protection in an effort to “achieve full coverage” of child protection by civil society organizations by 2025. 

Achieving such comprehensive child welfare mechanisms remains a challenge for any government. China’s recent developments reflect a top-down, all-of-government mentality that outlines obligations for all stakeholders, from the parent who might have to leave their child with relatives to centralized government bodies. China’s approach speaks to the adage that it “takes a village to raise a child,” and both the JPCW presenters and the legislation suggest that there is room for civil society organizations and grassroots participation. Whether or not these entities have the space and agency to fill these roles remains to be seen. 

The information in both parts of this article was gathered over the past year since the JPCW concluded. Dui Hua continues its dialogue with the SPC in an effort to stay abreast of developments and best practices for juvenile justice reform and the improvement of child welfare systems. These are areas in which countries the world over struggle to identify policies that will meaningfully address the issues facing youth, and dialogue on these issues is a reminder that sound child welfare policies help pave the way for a bright future.