Death on an Escalator: China's Evolving Childcare


On Sunday a 9-year-old boy died while riding an escalator in a busy Beijing mall.  Reports are he was ascending unaccompanied from the fifth to the sixth floors.  His mother worked in one of the mall's many stores and was unable to watch him.

As he moved upward, he poked his head over the railing to peer down.  As the escalator approached the sixth floor, the boy's head was caught between the concrete floor above and the railing.  There may or may not have been warning signs posted (there are conflicting reports) but he would not have seen them if he was looking downward.  A spokesman from the Beijing Emergency Medical Center said he died instantly.

This comes after an escalator malfunctioned in July at the Beijing Zoo, killing a 13-year-old boy and injuring 29 others.  In October in Guangdong province, 2-year-old Xiao Yueyue died after she wandered into the street and was hit by not one but two vehicles and ignored by passersby.

Sunday's incident has not sparked the same outrage as what happened at the zoo and to little Xiao Yueyue.  But Sunday's accident and the plight of "Yueyue," as she came to be known, does highlight a change in China and, arguably, the struggle the country is facing as it figures out how to balance bullet train growth with the traditional approach to childcare.

Here's why: consider the fact that many are asking why the little boy was alone on the escalator. On weekends in Beijing it is rare to see a child out and about accompanied by fewer than two adults.  More common is to see a single child accompanied by mom, dad and at least one set of grandparents, possibly both.

Not surprisingly China's One Child policy, most strictly enforced in urban areas, has created a reality in which that one child is revered, and doted on, as never before.   A report in the Chinese media described his mother as a migrant worker.  Beijing is full of migrant workers.  But the majority leave their sons and daughters in their hometowns to be looked after by relatives.  If there is a latch-key culture I have not seen it.

Regardless, this poor mother had her reasons, her pressures, her responsibilities and we can't know them.   I just can't help but think something made this Chinese woman feel the only option she had if she wanted to work - if she wanted to be on the bullet train of opportunity - was to bring her son with her.  That is what goes against the grain of my exposure to how the Chinese traditionally balance work and childcare.

In the days after the accident, the Beijing police dutifully issued 10 rules for safety on escalators.  What I haven't heard of is 10 rules for being a working mother in a country moving so fast.

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