by Jessie Jin
Image Source: CGTN
Trigger Warning: r*pe, abuse, self-harm. Viewer discretion is advised.
“The room I was imprisoned in was dark, the only source of light was from a crack in the wall. The walls are covered in mildew, and there are often rats and cockroaches on the floor. The room has an old quilt as the bed and a pot as the toilet, other than that there was nothing.” — Chen Mang, former student of the YuZhang Academy
Established in Nanchang, Jiangxi in 2013, YuZhang Academy characterized itself as a Confucian-value reform school that would “eliminate your children’s problems”. Parents sent their kids into the academy, hoping to solve the many “problems” their children had, such as poor academic performance, internet addiction, homosexuality, teenage rebellion, or simply being shy. It seemed like the perfect place to send your child: in just a few months, your problematic teenager will transform into an obedient student who won’t object to anything you say. In addition, the school promised with sincerity to never use corporal punishment on students. It was as if every problem could be logically solved. However, instead of getting the perfect child back, what most parents received were suicidal alumni, traumatized to the point that they were unable to live normal lives until years later. Although no exact numbers were calculated due to the anonymity of former students, many were known to have mental illnesses coming out. Almost every student comes out of the school with paranoiac tendencies.
Not all the children enrolled willingly at YuZhang Academy. After receiving students’ personal information from parents, YuZhang Academy sent out staff in fake police uniforms to cuff students, claiming that they were under probation for some sort of crime, took them in the car and drove them to the school. Once the students found out that something was wrong, a group of people would beat them and strip them of all their belongings, including all clothing. Shortly after, students were sent to what is called the “little dark room”. The rooms were dark damp and extremely hot, with minimal airflow. The students received a bucket of water every three days and spoiled food, with no company except for mice and cockroaches. They stayed in this room for ten days, or 240 hours, or 14400 minutes, or 864000 seconds. Every second was torture for these students. All the students can confirm that this treatment is false imprisonment, however, when the case was brought to trial, their experiences were dismissed as insufficient evidence.
Corporal punishment characterized everyday life in the academy. Students were beaten for random reasons, such as not organizing pencil cases well. Many students tried to commit suicide inside the academy, as they did not want to endure the continuous suffering. They did so by cutting with plastic bottles, as sharp utensils were not available to students in the school. Around 20 students also claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the founder, Wu Junbao. The speculated victims are as young as 12 years old, both female and male. Sexual harassment is already hard to trace in terms of evidence, and in this case it was almost impossible given the long time span between the harassment event and investigation.
The school shut down voluntarily in November 2017, after local authorities confirmed the acts of corporal punishments whistleblowers exposed in the previous month. However, it was not until three years later that “justice” was served.. On July 6th, 2020, a court in the Jiangxi province finally sentenced Wu Junbao for two years and ten months in prison for the “unlawful detention” of students. In addition, the school’s former headmaster, Ren Weiqiang, was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison. Two teachers were also sentenced to under two years, and one avoided all criminal punishment.
That is around two years for all the mental and physical trauma students had to go through. That is around two years for various illegal and inhumane activities. I truly don’t know if that can be called justice, but it is an official recognition of this academy’s notoriety. People were outraged at the verdict. A former YuZhang student petitioned to demand a probe into whether there are any relationships between the police, prosecutors, and Wu Junbao, given the police corruption issues in China. “Our lawyer filed five charges, but only one was established,” she said, “This is outrageous.” On Chinese social media platforms, many formal students and advocates of student protection expressed their anger and disappointment in the verdict, believing that it ought to be much higher. Given the weakness of legal charges that was established during court, followers of the case theorized that the court just wanted to settle the case for public appeasement, instead of providing true justice.
It is very hard to imagine an atrocity like this happened just three years ago, and the culprits are getting away with most of their charges now. To make matters worse, there are many other schools just like this across China. The YuZhang Academy case was blown up because of the whistleblowers’ engagement in social media and major contributions during the court trial. In reality, many “reform schools” like these escape the legal punishments they deserve, even today. In a way, this is representative of the society’s consensus on the extent of child discipline. Take the example of the Linyi Internet Addiction Treatment Center, a reform school that made headlines after the confirmation of electroshock usage to “cure” more than 6,000 students. Institutions like this have persisted in China mainly as a result of the Law on the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, describing that “serious misbehavior” by young people must be curbed “without delay.” The fact that Asian countries have a lot more tolerance on high degree of punishment just for obedient children can often mean the negligence of children’s rights. It is hard to label normative beliefs as “right” or “wrong” as we are all influenced by the societies we grow up in, but we can all agree that there is a fine line between upholding societal traditions and violating basic human rights altogether.