Chinese parents launch street protest after children were fed mouldy food at school

BEIJING (THE WASHINGTON POST) - Revelations this week that a highly rated private school fed mouldy food to children sent hundreds of angry parents into the streets, where they blocked traffic and clashed with police before being dispersed by tear gas.

Police in Chengdu, a south-western Chinese metropolis known for its panda reserve and spicy Sichuanese cuisine, said in a statement on Thursday (March 14) that they detained 12 people and used tear gas - "the minimum volume in accordance with the law" - to clear the streets after scuffles broke out.

In a country that responds forcefully to unrest, the police statement was almost apologetic by Chinese standards, highlighting how citizens fed up by perennial food and school safety scandals have been able to put the government on the defensive and challenge its authority.

Online footage showed fuming parents chanting into megaphones on the street. Mothers scuffled with policemen who tried to break up the protest. In one video, a man smashed the school principal's microphone when he tried to give a speech to lower tensions.

If the unrest was remarkable, so was the backstory of how the scandal came to light.

A parent went undercover to work in the school kitchen for one month after students started complaining of stomachaches, according to domestic media reports. The parent took pictures of mouldy ribs and bits of octopus and pig parts and shared them online, where they went viral.

Pictures from the Weibo microblogging website showed parents hanging a red banner accusing the First City Group Number 7 School of abusing children.

The private elementary school, located in the west of the Sichuan provincial capital, is affiliated one of the city's best schools and was founded by First City Group, an overseas Chinese investment group with multiple property developments.

"I just want to cry in silence. I sent my child to school at 5½ years old, gave all the trust to the school, and this is what has happened," a Chinese financial news site quoted a mother as saying.

The local government said in a statement on Wednesday (March 13) that the school has terminated its deal with the food supplier and launched investigations into related parties.

It noted the police statement that they had used "minimum" tear gas to maintain order, adding that they first tried to persuade parents to leave without success.

"Some of them stopped passing cars and cut off traffic, which severely disturbed the normal social order," the government statement said.

"Police on site started quickly evacuating and persuading them to leave, but some tried to obstruct the police enforcement by hitting and cursing police."

Twelve parents were released on Wednesday afternoon after "realising the social harmfulness of their own behaviour", the statement said.