Earlier this month, former students at an “internet addiction” school in eastern China’s Jiangxi province accused the institution of violent and inhumane treatment, leading to an investigation by local authorities. The government of Qingshanhu District in the city of Nanchang verified the allegations made against Yuzhang Academy, which had subjected students to beatings and weeklong stints in solitary confinement. Facing mounting public pressure, the Academy had its accreditation rescinded by education authorities and closed its doors.
Before its precipitous fall from grace, the Yuzhang Academy was an ancient institution of learning, charged with preparing students to take the imperial civil service exam. This original iteration of the academy was founded in the 12th century, during the Southern Song Dynasty, and thrived until the turn of the 20th century, when it closed its doors in 1898.
More than a hundred years later, in 2011, the academy was re-established under its current director, Wu Junbao. Outwardly, it espoused moral reform — for problem children and underachieving students, the internet-addicted and the learning-averse — through Confucian traditions such as studying literary classics and practicing martial arts. In reality, however, the modern Yuzhang was more a prison than a school.
After getting dropped off by their parents, new wards were promptly thrown into a dark, windowless room, where they would remain for a week or more. If they endured this crucible, they were allowed to participate in the official program of study, which involved waking up at 5:30 every day for morning readings. Any disciplinary violation was punished in such a way that it might never happen again.
Yuzhang claimed to have developed a comprehensive system for “reforming” students, which involved rigorous study, manual labor, and corporal punishment. Minor infractions were punished with a wooden ruler; major violations, such as smoking, fighting, dating, or voicing thoughts of suicide, were punished with the “dragon whip” — a steel rod as thick as a man’s finger.
Moreover, children were encouraged to inform on one another, as if they were unwitting participants in some grossly unethical psychological experiment to sow anxiety and fear into the entire student body. In the majority of cases, the end result was unconditional submission.
Instead of receiving the personal development their parents were promised, many students at Yuzhang left with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, without professional treatment, these children will be hard-pressed to escape the indelible pall the school has cast upon their lives.
Most of the children at Yuzhang were enrolled there by parents who found themselves at their wit’s end. After the school closed, several of these parents hung banners across the gate imploring it to reopen. To them, Yuzhang Academy was a last resort, but a necessary one. “The local police wouldn’t do anything,” the father of one former student told The Beijing News. “I had no choice but to send him somewhere that would.”
A child walks with a shared bike in front of the outer wall of Yuzhang Academy in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, Nov. 6, 2017. Yang Yifan/Caixin/VCG
But the notion that the last options for dealing with “problematic” children are police involvement or a place like Yuzhang is simply preposterous, and it’s also indicative of how some Chinese parents still view violence as an acceptable way to bring their children in line. In Chinese, too, we have the saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” — but more pervasive still is the belief that “a filial child is born under the rod.”
Traditionally, Chinese society has regarded conflict between parents and children, and husbands and wives, as a private, family affair, and not something that would ever become an official matter. Thus, it’s easy enough to understand — but not condone — how desperate parents with “bad” children turn to places like Yuzhang.
Unfortunately, Yuzhang Academy is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as similar institutions can be found all over China. Their websites and brochures may differ outwardly, but their core models are the same. Most claim to provide effective treatment for “internet-addicted” teens, though they’ll correct just about any problem for the right price. What parents aren’t privy to is how they go about doing this.
Take the Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Linyi, Shandong province, run by the now-infamous Yang Yongxin, or “Uncle Yang.” The center made headlines after it was revealed that Yang and his staff administered electroshock therapy to “cure” more than 6,000 young patients.
Institutions like Yang’s center have persisted in China largely due to the wording of Article 35 of the Law on the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, which states that “serious misbehavior” by young people must be curbed “without delay.”
“Their parents or other guardians and the schools concerned shall coordinate their efforts and take measures to subject [the misbehaving children] to strict discipline,” the article continues, “or may send them to work-study schools for rectification or treatment, and for education.”
Naturally, the line between “strict” and “abusive” blurs depending on who is interpreting these words, and parents, schools, and government education departments tend to have their own definitions of what exactly constitutes “serious misbehavior.” Even seemingly straightforward questions like “What is violence?” have become mind-bogglingly complicated.
Still, most would likely agree that some of the punishments meted out by Yuzhang Academy and Yang’s internet addiction center violate Article 21 of the Law on the Protection of Minors, which forbids school employees from administering corporal punishment or “any other act that humiliates the personal dignity of minors.”
Many Chinese parents today either indulge or neglect their children. When children start acting out, parents look for shortcuts, believing that if they throw enough money at the problem, it will go away, leaving a smiling, rosy-cheeked “good” child in its place. Moms and dads who share this mentality are easy prey for institutions like Yuzhang.
In reality, however, “bad” students are often the result of poor schooling and poor parenting. Their so-called misbehavior is merely a testament to the incompetence of the adults in the room. Forcing these children to take medicine or receive treatment is not a long-term solution to problems stemming from the child’s home or school environment.
Preventing schools from mistreating the children entrusted to their care requires action from local governments. The continued accreditation of schools that use beatings, electroshock therapy, forced medication, or other forms of corporal punishment to treat “addiction” is a clear failure of official oversight.
On Jan. 6 of this year, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released a draft version of the Regulations on the Protection of Minors Online, which aims to address some of these problems. The new regulations explicitly prohibit any individual or organization from resorting to abuse, coercion, or other illegal methods to treat internet addiction in minors, as well as forbid causing harm to a minor’s physical or mental health.
But there are still a few more steps to go: Not until the draft regulations are passed — and not until they are widely implemented at the lowest levels of government, from the grassroots up — can we reasonably expect our country’s children to be safe from steel rods, electric currents, and dark, featureless rooms.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and David Paulk.
(Header image: A view of the front gate of Yuzhang Academy in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, Nov. 5, 2017. Yang Yifan/Caixin/VCG)