By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
BEIJING (CNN) — Even a grainy three-month-old video clip can stir up a controversy.
A closed-circuit television clip, posted and shared on Chinese social media and reported by the local press this week, has triggered sympathy and outrage here in China.
The footage purportedly shows a four-year-old girl with autism being manhandled and beaten by a female assistant at a children’s rehabilitation center in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The girl apparently collapsed and lost consciousness as other adults looked on passively. She was rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment, Chinese media reports said.
Qiu Yaoyao (not her real name), an only child, has since undergone neurosurgery and is slowly recovering, a local Guangzhou newspaper reported last week.
She can sit but she can’t stand yet, the newspaper said, and her speaking ability is still impaired.
The assistant in the video has been charged with assault and battery, media reports said, though CNN has not yet been able to verify this.
Even though the incident happened three months ago, the newly uploaded video has sparked heated debate about the treatment of children — particularly those with disabilities — generating over 180,000 re-posts and 28,000 comments on one social media website alone.
There is massive public outrage.
Critics condemned the teacher’s behavior, one calling it a “bestial act.”
Film actress Ma Yili took to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, to say, “This kind of behavior should be charged with intentional homicide. Autistic kids are extra vulnerable because they are unable to independently control their behavior. We as parents will be closely watching how (the teacher) will be punished in court.”
Another Weibo user, named @Yaliju, asked, “Doesn’t she have a child herself? How on earth could kindergarten teachers be so cold-blooded? Who would dare entrust their kids to these peoples’ hands?”
Other netizens blame the lack of trained teachers, especially for children with autism and other disabilities.
“This is heart-wrenching,” posted @alwaysyouyou. “And why were all the other teachers just standing there watching? I’m deeply worried about how teachers get their qualifications nowadays.”
Still others question how Chinese children are reared and educated.
Zheng Yuanjie, a writer of children’s books, wrote on his microblog: “Parents make so much effort to secure a slot for their kids in the kindergarten, but do they know what’s happening behind closed doors once they get in?
“When I was in kindergarten, a kid accidentally dropped his bowl while eating. The teacher asked all other kids to take turns to slap him.”
Like many places around the world, Chinese teachers and parents do resort to corporal punishment at times to discipline misbehaving children.
But no one is defending the brutal treatment of Qiu Yaoyao.
“Surely it must be severely punished,” wrote Zhang Jie, a commentator at China Central Television (CCTV) in a microblog post. “The kindergarten and its supervisors must be held responsible too.”
“Educators should be more thoughtful in the way they discipline students. No matter what, corporal punishment in public will harm the students’ self-esteem for sure,” said Yang Jiangding, Director of the Shanghai Children’s Research Center.
Qiu Yaoyao’s maltreatment has also put the spotlight on the plight of autistic children in China.
Prevalence of autism in the world’s most populous country, experts say, is largely underestimated because many Chinese doctors, parents and teachers typically do not know enough about the condition to be able to identify and diagnose it. Though awareness is growing and early intervention is improving, the social stigma remains strong.
Autism in Chinese is known as “zibizheng,” literally “self-isolation syndrome,” or loneliness disease.
It’s a feeling shared by the parents of autistic children.
“I feel depressed and helpless I don’t know how to deal with this,” said Meng Xi in an interview with CNN.
He said sometimes it seems his daughter barely knows he’s there but the loving father said he is always there. He does not dare leave her side.
Meng Xi brought his daughter to a special center for autistic children on the outskirts of Beijing. There, some 30 children, from toddlers to five and six years old, get specialized one-on-one care. Teachers use music and animal therapy to help unlock what could be inside the children’s world.
But these facilities are rare in China and parents and teachers complain of a lack of such facilities.
The government helps subsidize the center, but parents still need to pay a lot of money for their children’s special education. Meng Xi pays the equivalent of $500 a month — almost his entire monthly salary.
Autism is China’s number one mental disorder, according to a research paper presented at the International Autism Research Conference in Shanghai last year.
Yet a recent survey by the Shenzhen Autism Society in southern China reveals an alarming lack of professional or government support.
The brutal treatment of four-year-old Qiu Yaoyao, shockingly captured in that grainy closed-circuit television clip, is a grim reminder of that.