The ruling Chinese Communist Party has moved to damp down a public outcry surrounding the alleged abuse of children and toddlers at a Beijing kindergarten, warning the country's tightly controlled media not to criticize a recent statement by police denying that any sexual abuse took place.
"Resolutely prevent any malicious hyping of the Chaoyang police's social media account announcement on the RYB New World kindergarten," a leaked directive from the party's powerful propaganda department ordered editors.
"Please immediately delete or shut down any social media content or accounts that seek to exaggerate the situation," a copy of the directive posted online by the U.S.-based China Digital Times news website said.
New York-listed RYB Education has removed the principal of its New World kindergarten in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, and also fired a 22-year-old teacher surnamed Liu, who police said had been found to have "pricked" children in her care with needles.
The Chaoyang district police department said Liu is now under criminal detention, after admitting pricking children with needles who "didn't want to take a nap," as a form of "discipline."
While the statement admitted that some of the surveillance footage from cameras inside the kindergarten was missing, it blamed a member of staff for switching off the power for the gaps in coverage, and denied allegations by parents of sexual abuse at the kindergarten.
"So far in the investigation, we have managed to recover 113 hours of surveillance footage, and at no point was anyone seen harming or abusing a child," the statement said.
It said that of the 78 staff members employed at the facility, only eight were male, and that police had "found no incidents in which they were alone with the children."
State-run Xinhua news agency had earlier reported that police were investigating allegations that children were "reportedly sexually molested, pierced by needles and given unidentified pills."
But police handed an administrative jail sentence to a parent surnamed Liu for "rumor-mongering" about the scandal, while a second parent surnamed Li had been released on caution after receiving "criticism and education" from police, and making a public apology for the allegations on social media, it said.
Repeated calls to the Chaoyang district government education bureau rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Many suspect the government, in admitting the physical abuse with needles, is seeking to cover up a far greater scandal.
"Of course nobody believes the version of events offered by RYB kindergarten," a parent surnamed Li told RFA. "After doing these evil things, day in, day out, they are now trying to make themselves out to be good people."
"This is utterly shameful, and I think everyone understands very well what is going on here."
An anonymous teacher at a different Beijing kindergarten agreed.
"For such things to be going on at kindergartens really shows you just how dark our society has gotten," the teacher said. "We can no longer see the light."
A kindergarten principal in the central province of Hubei said it was highly suspicious that a section of surveillance footage had "gone missing."
"If they had a proper surveillance system in the first place, then it couldn't have gone missing," the principal said. "I think the school is keeping something back."
And an academic who asked to be identified only by his surname Li said the police statements left far too many questions unanswered.
"It's very unsurprising for this to be the outcome in China," Li said. "Firstly, ordinary people have no way to take on officials, and secondly, there's a prohibition on 'smearing' the central government since the 19th party congress [last month]."
"They basically want to cover up anything negative, because they see it as smearing them."
Keyword searches of top Chinese social media sites showed that many tweets referencing the RYB scandal had been deleted by Wednesday.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.