Nanny arson case that killed Chinese mother, three children sparks debate over class divide

Although details are still hazy, incident sparks intense online debate about class and inequality on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2017, 6:23pm

A mother and three children were killed in eastern China in a suspected arson case by the family’s nanny, prompting fierce debate over class tensions in the country.

The nanny was detained over the weekend after police confirmed a fire had deliberately been started at the family’s high-rise apartment in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province at about 5am last Thursday.

While firefighters doused the fire before 7am, according to the Shanghai Daily, the mother and her children – two boys age 11 and 6, and one 9-year-old girl – died in hospital from their injuries.

At the time of the incident, the mother had awoken first and asked the nanny to go and seek help, allowing her to safely escape, the Hangzhou Daily reported. The husband was out of town on business.

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The 34-year-old nanny from Guangdong province, currently held on suspicion of arson, has reportedly confessed to using a lighter to start a fire in the living room.

According to the deceased woman’s brother, Zhu Qingfeng, the nanny was hired last year through an intermediary. She appeared to get along with the family, even borrowing money from them to repay debts she accrued from a gambling habit, Red Star News reported.

Details of the case are still subject to investigation, police said.

The incident has captivated Chinese internet users, with the trending topic on the case being viewed more than 51 million times last Saturday before it was removed, according to the blog site What’s on Weibo.

A verified Weibo account for the victim’s family posted photos of the victims on Sunday, addressing the children: “Hangzhou was raining all day, are they tears from missing your father? Or is it the despair from your mother as she embraces all of you? ... Children, you are with your mother. May your souls come back, and we can meet in our dreams. Be good.”

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Online users commented on the class implications of the case involving the nanny and the well-off family, which lived in a multimillion yuan luxury apartment.

Income inequality remains high in China compared to other countries. While the rich-poor gap began to close steadily since 2010, a Peking University report last year found the richest 1 per cent of households still owned one third of China’s wealth.

But many online users slammed critiques about the “ethics” of lower-income earners, saying the case was no excuse to attack those who were less well-off.

“The nanny’s income was higher than most white-collar workers, so this has nothing to do with being ‘poor’ – it is about not having morals,” one user wrote.

“The problem is not with not having money, it is with evil,” said another.

Another woman said the “heartbreaking” incident should make people “reflect on society and on human nature”, blaming both the nanny and a lack of adequate fire safety standards.

Several users posted remembrance messages for the victims, writing: “Life is priceless, may the dead rest in peace, as the living stay strong.”

Nanny of dead boy 'in a rush'

Intense public scrutiny of the case has caused unsubstantiated allegations to fly across the internet. The Hangzhou public security bureau posted on their WeChat account last Saturday denouncing a Weibo post on Friday with “false information” that caused “negative impact to society”.

It said the 53-year-old Hangzhou woman behind the post confessed to “disrupting public order,” and was given a 10-day detention sentence and fined 500 yuan (US$73), news portal Thepaper.cn reported.

The woman also later apologised on her microblog account.