Authorities in Shanghai have detained three members of staff and shut down a company day-care facility after video footage of the physical abuse of very small children in its care was posted online.
Police announced the detentions on Thursday after a video of staff at the nursery physically abusing one child and force-feeding another with the fiery Japanese condiment wasabi was uploaded to social media on Wednesday.
Shanghai-based online travel firm Ctrip, which ran the nursery for its employees, apologized for the mistreatment of the children, which sparked outrage on social media, official media reported.
"There was gross negligence by some teachers at the day care center, which ctrip.com entrusted to a third party to manage," the company said in a statement.
"The company has reported the case to the police and will stand with the parents in holding those responsible accountable," it said.
Internal surveillance camera footage date-stamped Nov. 1 showed a woman throwing a toddler's backpack on the ground and pushing her, causing her to fall and hit her head on the edge of a desk. The woman also removes some of the child's clothing.
A second clip dated Nov. 3 showed an employee forcefully feeding something to some of the children who then begin to cry. Parents said the substance was wasabi, a spicy radish condiment used in Japanese cuisine.
The nursery was set up in February and is run by a contractor, School for the Children, which is owned by Modern Family magazine under the aegis of the government-backed Shanghai Women's Federation, which observers said was a political blow to the city's governing elite.
Both the federation and the magazine "strongly condemned" the incident, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, reported.
Ctrip has shut down the nursery, which provided daycare to some 110 children aged from 18 months to three years old, and will gather feedback from employees about whether it should be re-opened.
Ctrip CEO Sun Jie wrote in an e-mail to employees that the company "had never expected" such an outcome.
"By inviting a third-party agency to run the nursery, our original intention was to have a professional and qualified team look after the kids of Ctrip," she said in an email quoted in the Shanghai Daily newspaper.
"We are sad and angry ... We have no experience in kid nursing and education, but we are negligent in supervision," Sun said.
The Shanghai Women's Federation has publicly distanced itself from the scandal, saying that Modern Family magazine is a separate organization.
But an employee who answered the phone there on Thursday said the organization's leadership were all in a meeting about the incident.
"We have heard a number of reports of similar incidents today, and all our employees are out at meetings today," the employee said. "They are in the process of dealing with these matters, and timely updates will be posted on the Shanghai Women's Federation website."
Meanwhile, Modern Family has said that it accepts liability for the incident, state media reported.
"In line with our responsibility to the children and parents, we vow to conduct a thorough investigation and will fully cooperate," the magazine said in a statement quoted in the Global Times.
Amid calls for the general public to boycott Ctrip over the incident, the company held a news conference which showed one of the daycare center staff kneeling and begging parents for forgiveness. However, the parents responded by force-feeding her with wasabi, online videos showed, until police broke up the melee.
The videos emerged after one mother checked surveillance footage at Ctrip offices after her 18-month-old daughter showed repeated signs of distress.
She said the nursery employee had apparently become enraged when her daughter had needed a large number of diaper changes in a short space of time, and treated her roughly.
The nursery was one of the first of 12 workplace nurseries set up in Shanghai in recent years, the Shanghai Daily said.
A Shanghai journalist who asked to remain anonymous said workplace nurseries are a relatively new phenomenon in China.
"They are pretty much all government-run in other cities, and it's hard for a lot of nurseries [to get licensed]," the journalist said. "But the Women's Federation has been directly implicated here, so it's politically very sensitive."
"But I think it's great that we're able to report this, so everyone knows about it," he said.
A Shanghai resident surnamed Pan said new nurseries try to meet the huge demand for childcare by setting up as branches of existing, publicly licensed nurseries, and it is rare for an official body like the Shanghai Women's Federation to be directly involved.
"Usually, they like to stay at arm's length from everything, because they are part of the government and party system, and they hold the rank of a bureau [in the city government]," he said. "But that has all fallen apart with this incident because the management in this case wasn't good enough."
"Now, everyone is trying to apportion blame and responsibility ... maybe these high-ranking organizations want to maintain their public prestige, so they pass the buck," he said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.