High-schooler in China’s Hebei pens desperate plea over violence at top exam factory
China’s internet censors have deleted a desperate account of violence and psychological pressure at a school known for gaining top scores in the annual university entrance examination, as young people told similar stories of institutional violence in interviews with Radio Free Asia.
The article titled: “Save us! A Hengshui No. 2 High School student speaks up,” was deleted after it appeared on the Zhihu platform, but remains visible on overseas websites.
“The team is currently investigating the content of the online report … We will take the matter seriously according to the law and regulations,” the government said via its official Weibo account.
The article details a litany of physical and mental abuse suffered by students at the school, where students have previously taken their own lives.
“I am currently on leave of absence due to depression and am in hospital with a diagnosis of a broken toe on my left foot,” said the article, a copy of which was posted to the overseas-based China Digital Times website.
“This school engages in corporal punishment at will, seriously beating and verbally abusing students, and forcing them to stand [in stress positions] against the wall with no time limit,” the post said.
“I have seen a classmate sent flying … by a single kick from an enraged class teacher … for not doing their cleaning duties when it was their day,” said the post, which claimed to be written by a boarding student at the prestigious secondary school.
“I’ve seen another student pressed up against the wall by the chest for turning up a second late to our 15-minute mealtime,” it said.
Another high-schooler from Henan province, student A, who asked to remain anonymous said the issue of bullying and abuse in schools is so widespread that he had set up a social media group to provide support for student victims, that now has hundreds of members from all over the country.
“They are basically high school students and college students from all over the country,” he said.
When students at his school had tried to complain, they were subjected to retaliation by the principal, then warned by their class teacher not to use the local education bureau hotline.
“The homeroom teacher said they didn’t think it would be safe to call the reporting line, because the school can also call up the police station [and find out who it was],” student A said.
Even when complaints started to trickle out onto social media, and some phone calls were made to report abuses, nothing changed. “The municipal education bureau still did nothing about it in the end,” he said.
“I want a better human rights situation for high-schoolers in mainland China, but I also want democracy and constitutional government for the whole country,” he said. “This is my personal wish and vision.”
The ‘Hengshui model’
The Zhihu article was met with widespread recognition by online commentators, with posts referring to the “Hengshui model” of hothousing students by fair means or foul to get the best possible scores in the college entrance exams.
“This model has blossomed everywhere and has many imitators,” columnist Zhang Feng wrote in an article on the overseas-based news site Neiwen. “Yet society is unlikely to pay much attention to this cry for help because it is nothing new.”
Zhang said private, high-pressure senior high schools are used to target enrollment from poorer, rural locations, where they skim off the most promising students from state-run junior high schools.
A similar scenario is being played out in his hometown in Henan province, where students have accused schools of “not caring whether they live or die, and all for the sake of grades,” he wrote, adding that college entrance exam results are the be-all and end-all for such schools.
Like student A, the deleted Zhihu post also said the authorities clamp down hard on anyone who complains publicly about their treatment at the school.
“Anyone posting negative information about the school online is immediately expelled, while they can find the phone numbers of anyone who reports them to the [local] education bureau,” it said. “That’s why students daren’t say anything.”
The post detailed further abuses of children, who it said are routinely assaulted by staff for minor infractions of discipline such as being narrowly late for their next timetabled event.
Verbal abuse is also the norm at the school, with screams of “you’re all a waste of space,” “moron” and other epithets commonly hurled at students, the post said.
Human rights lawyer Wu Shaoping said such treatment is illegal under Chinese law.
“High school students are still minors, so they are protected by legislation,” Wu said. “It seems as if the Hengshui model of school management just does away with that law.”
The post isn’t the first time the school has been in the public eye, with three students taking their own lives there between 2014 and 2015, leading it to install safety nets on the roof of the teaching blocks.
Teachers themselves are put under huge pressure by management, who turn a blind eye when they pass on that pressure to the students, the post said.
“The school’s goal isn’t to teach or to educate but to attract more students and bring in more money,” it said.
Weibo user @yeyeyeye said they are also an alumnus of the school.
“The management is a law unto itself, and … the teachers whip students with their belts,” the user wrote. “They make them run with tires on their backs, reduce their rations to nothing but plain rice or buns, or nothing at all.”
“All messages, letters and phone calls are monitored by the teachers, so the truth can’t get out,” the user wrote.
‘Internet addiction’ boot camp
Meanwhile, reports were emerging of extreme bullying and abuse of young people at a military-style boot camp designed to wean them off “internet addiction” and other social ills.
The Zhongmu county government said it had set up a joint investigation team to probe the allegations of horrific physical abuse made by an inmate at the Yashensi education camp in Henan’s Zhongmu county, which promises to treat “internet addiction” among young people.
A student who has been to a similar camp in Guangdong province said there was a culture of violence and abuse there, too.
“You need to ask permission even if you want to get water to drink or go to the toilet, and the instructors usually don’t allow it,” student B, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told Radio Free Asia. “I wasn’t even allowed to phone home.”
“They make you run between eight and 15 kilometers a day, and do at least 300 push-ups, 300 sit-ups and at least 500 squats,” student B said.
“There was a lot of cruel corporal punishment including the airplane [stress position].”
Student B said the camp had been shut down following complaints about its treatment of young people. Calls to the listed number rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Lawyer Wu Shaoping said neither the boot camps nor the Hengshui model of schooling is likely to end anytime soon, given the level of collusion between local governments and companies running the schools.
“This management model is spreading all over the country,” lawyer Wu Shaoping said. “It has become particularly serious during the past five or six years.”
Twitter user @PigeonMaBond commented: “Chinese people are only now starting to get it. [Remember] how many people were defending the Hengshui model 10 years ago,” while Twitter-based Marxist commentator Ma Aiguo said the Hengshui model was a “deformed bourgeois model of education … that doesn’t treat people as people but as tools and commodities.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.