Fifteen kindergarten pupils in rural Guixi, Jiangxi province, crammed into a van designed for seven, plunged into the cold waters of a roadside pond on Christmas Eve because their driver, who owned their unauthorised kindergarten and who had only been driving for a year, lost control of the vehicle. Eleven children died.
They were the latest casualties in a string of such accidents on the mainland involving rural children in overloaded, modified vans because there is a lack of safe school buses.
The authorities quickly punished 12 officials, including a Guixi vice-mayor, but that did little to stem public anger.
People asked how such tragedies kept being repeated, despite promise after promise to tackle the problem. Wasn't a school-bus-safety regulation adopted in March after multiple accidents last year, including one that killed 21 children in Gansu?
"Such a tragedy in a rural area would serve no purpose if all it aroused was some tears shed by urban people, especially amid the social context of bold urbanisation," the Southern Metropolis Daily said.
Many children are left behind in rural areas by parents who move to the city to make a living and grandparents tend to send them to private kindergartens, even though they are far away, because they don't know how else to care for them.
In the Guixi case, many parents said they were aware the private kindergarten was unlicensed and that its van was overloaded, but it was their only option if their children were not to be raised at home by their grandparents.
"The real issue is how to divert more resources to rural areas and the resources should include not only teachers, facilities and school buses, but also government supervision," the newspaper said.
The official Xinhua news agency blamed irresponsible authorities for the crash, without naming any in particular.
"The deep-rooted reason for such a tragedy is that the authorities were not responsible and did not pay enough attention to education … the old problems persist and accidents that should have been avoided still happen," it said.
"And when an accident happens again, accountability is not carried properly and rectification is just a show."
China Central Television said the authorities, at least in Jiangxi, knew what they should do and did what they could but, at its core, the problem came down to a lack of money.
CCTV said an inspection of 99 schools in 22 cities and counties by Jiangxi's education department last year found the use of overloaded school buses was widespread, with private kindergartens accounting for 90 per cent of cases.
The department had urged unauthorised kindergartens to upgrade and promised subsidies for private kindergartens to help them buy suitable school buses. But safety hazards in rural kindergarten education persisted because there was uncertainty about who would take the lead and how such schemes could be implemented in the absence of funding.
"The government should take the lead and let central and local government shoulder the cost," CCTV said.
The Yangtse Evening Post did not agree that a lack of money was the problem.
"Too much needs to be reflected on, but one thing is for sure: arguments that there is a lack of money to buy school buses are false," it said, adding that within 24 hours of the Guixi crash, the local government had signed an agreement to pay each bereaved family 480,000 yuan in compensation.
A school bus cost just over 200,000 yuan and if the money spent on compensation had been used to buy a bus instead the accident might never have happened.
"We should link officials' political careers with school bus accidents and punish severely those who have no sense of responsibility but only pay compensation," the Yangtse Evening Post said.Topics: School Bus Children Transportation Rural Society in China