On a cold February day in Zhaodong, a small city in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province, Chen Xinran opened the door of her dormitory to find two sturdily-built men standing before her. Behind them were several members of the 16-year-old’s extended family, most of whom she did not know by name. In the crowd she saw the “cold, resentful eyes” of her father, an entry in her online journal recalls.
“Is this her?” one of the men called back into the group.
Chen Xinran — a pseudonym — was promptly dragged outside and pushed into a black car with Shandong province plates, she writes. Her phone, cigarettes, and money were taken off her, and after a violent struggle she was forced down into the gap between the car’s seats, unable to move for the weight of one of the men’s knees pressing down on her shoulder.
On her parents’ orders, Chen was being taken to Shandong Science and Technology Defense College, a privately run correctional institution for problematic children that sits on the dusty eastern suburbs of Jinan City, the capital of eastern China’s Shandong province. The premise on which her parents sent her there was to “cure” her of her homosexuality.
Four months later, Chen was released. On Sept. 17, three months after returning to Zhaodong, she surrendered herself to police, after the body of her mother was found tied up in the family home. She is suspected to have died from starvation.
The tragic case has trained the country’s scrutiny on the practices of the Defense College, which describes itself on its website as Jinan’s only government-certified internet addiction rehabilitation school, having “helped more than 7,000 young people overcome the challenges of growing up.” To such ends, the school, which was established in 1996, employs “strict, completely closed-off, and military-style management.”
But testimonies from graduates suggest that the school is more like a detention facility for non-conforming adolescents, where the students are abused and humiliated until they learn to obey. Former students told Sixth Tone they learned to participate in the school's system of corporal punishment, beating other students, while parents spoke of the horror of realizing their children had been subject to a violent and humiliating form of education — vastly different to that advertized by the school.
As we climb to the top floor of an adjacent high-rise apartment block, we are given a view into the secretive school that is otherwise denied by the 4-meter high, barbed wire-topped perimeter wall. It is the middle of the afternoon on a September weekday, but there is not a single sign of life in the courtyard, nor through the vertical metal bars that adorn all of the main building’s windows.
But efforts have been made to instill a sense of vitality and activity within the school’s reception area, which is open to visitors. Plastered across the walls of the large foyer are promotional posters and photos of children in camouflage uniforms carrying out military drills and physical training. Dozens of decorative banners of all the same dimensions and format — yet purportedly all from different parents — display messages of thanks to the school for instilling discipline into their badly behaved children. Beside them hang billboards that offer advice on dealing with the perils of adolescence, such as teenage romance and skipping school.
Among the materials that adorn the walls, a recurring motif is the treatment of internet addiction. “Rebellious, bad children who are addicted to the internet can be made good again,” a framed piece of exquisite traditional calligraphy claims, while a gold plaque above the main entrance states that the school is a bona fide “internet addiction research center.”
But with heightened scrutiny following last week’s suspected matricide, the school has sought to distance itself from the contentious issue of internet addiction treatment. The school’s vice principal — who would only provide his surname, Li — told us that internet addiction was no longer an area in which the school offered treatment, though he could not recall in which year this transformation had happened. Firmly denying that the school’s staff employed corporal punishment as a means to discipline children, Li went on to say that the education offered by the school was now solely academic.
Yet according to a spokesperson for the school’s enrollment office, internet addiction rehabilitation very much remains a core tenet of the institution’s services. “That is precisely the specialty of our school,” director of recruitment Ma Xiaoyan said when we asked whether the school could help a child addicted to the internet. As to how they would be brought to the school, Ma said, “We can collect them, but it’s best if the parents can trick them into coming here,” adding that the cost of “collection” was 2 yuan (around $0.30) per kilometer driven.
The collection process is one that Luo Sheng — the pseudonym of a 17-year-old who was admitted to the college for over one year for being disobedient — knows all too well. On one September morning in 2014, he said, he was apprehended by two plainclothesmen outside his home in Taian, a small city in Shandong not far from Jinan. Wielding handcuffs, the men told him that he was being taken to the police station to give a statement about a fight he had been involved in. But as his mother looked on blankly, he was led not into a police car, but a black, unmarked van.
“I asked them what I’d done, but all the man said was ‘You’ve done something really bad,’” Luo recalled. “At the time I wanted to find a way to escape — they weren’t the police, they didn’t show any form of police identification.”
But Luo did not get his chance, and two hours later he was escorted through the gates of the Shandong Science and Technology Defense College. “They didn’t tell me anything,” he said. “They just said that I’d been sent here by my parents.”
“I shouted out, ‘That’s impossible!’ and immediately five or six instructors appeared.” Luo was promptly pushed down to the ground and held firm while the “squad leader” reprimanded him for his impudence. Luo broke free, at which point the squad leader pulled out a stun baton. “You don’t want to be stunned by one of those, so when he took that out I stopped resisting at once,” Luo said.
Luo was pulled by his hair into a classroom, he said, where he was pushed to his knees in front of four other students and beaten with “punch after punch, left hooks and right hooks.” When his silent classmates were led out of the room to go to the bathroom, he said, he was beaten for a further 10 minutes.
It was a similar experience for Yang Jie — also a pseudonym — whose parents made the 1,400-kilometer drive from Lanzhou in the northwestern province of Gansu in May 2015 to deliver her to the school. Yang, then 16, skipped class frequently, and her parents believed the solution lay with a regimen grounded in discipline, paying the more than 30,000 yuan for one year’s tuition upon arrival.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Yang’s mother said she felt her heart break when she saw the school was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, its windows shielded by metal bars. “It was no different to a prison,” she told us through tears. She demanded there and then that recruitment director Ma promise the school would not employ any form of corporal punishment.
When she was allowed to visit the school four months later, Yang’s mother was horrified to hear that it appeared to have been an empty promise. Her daughter had witnessed beatings of male and female students soon after entering the school. “My daughter was terrified, and after that decided to behave herself,” her mother said. While her daughter was not beaten herself, several times she was forced with other female students to drink the water from latrine cisterns and scrub toilets with her own toothbrush, which she would have no choice but to continue using to brush her teeth afterward.
Yang’s mother promptly withdrew her daughter from the school, forfeiting the remainder of the year’s tuition fees. “When she came out she was quieter than she was before she went in,” Yang’s mother said. “She’s promised me she will do better at school.”
Like Yang, Luo was shocked into obedience following the violence that marked the beginning of his stint at the college. He soon learned not to resist the orders of his superiors, and he was eventually promoted to class monitor. “I figured that everything would be fine if I just did nothing wrong and minded my own business until my parents came to pick me up,” he said.
With new status came new responsibility, and Luo soon found himself being expected to carry out punishment on junior students. “I knew it was wrong,” he recalled, adding that he would only hit fellow students in the chest, never the face. “If they messed up, I would sometimes just let it go, but the instructors would always tell us class monitors that we couldn’t display any kind of emotional attachment.”
According to a recruitment listing for the school, applicants for the role of instructor must have military experience and “sound politics.” One of those currently working at the school is 25-year-old Lu Hailong, a former military policeman who served in northeastern China’s Jilin province. “He was my direct supervisor,” Luo recalled. “He was very well-tempered.” Luo’s words echo what is said about Lu on the college’s website: “With his warmth and patience, he is able to become one with the students very quickly.”
As well as leading military drills and ensuring that students do not have access to such things as mobile phones, the internet, or cash, Lu is also responsible for collecting children. His is listed in Chen Xinran’s online diary as one of the two men who seized her from her dormitory in February this year.
Our attempts to verify Chen’s account were met with threats and few answers. When we travelled on Wednesday to Lu’s home in Lujia Village, just 15 minutes’ drive from the school, we were soon accosted by several men who demanded to see our identification documents. An agitated Lu and his girlfriend — also an instructor at the school — promptly arrived and accused us of trespassing and violating their privacy, shouting: “You won’t be leaving Lujia Village tonight.” Local police soon arrived at the scene and explained that journalists had the right to carry out investigations, before escorting us safely out of the village and back into Jinan.
Chen narrated in great detail the process of being collected and sent to the college in her online diary, but details of her four months inside are sparse. Speaking from Zhaodong, her aunt disclosed that Chen had told her she and other students had been beaten and forced to eat food while facing one of the school’s latrines, accounts that were verified by two other female “graduates” who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While conjecture that her experience in the school directly fueled a deadly resentment of her parents has dominated both domestic and international coverage of the tragedy, Chen’s online posts suggest that her relationship with her parents was deeply traumatic even before she was sent to the school.
“Even before I had the capability [to defend myself] I was abused, and my father would often hold me down on the bed,” a post on Aug. 25 reads. The same entry also speaks of her father’s attempts to break up the relationship between Chen, who is lesbian, and her partner, whom she identifies only as her “woman.”
There exists no official material that states the school offers any form of education that seeks to “correct” the sexual orientation of students. But an article on the school’s official website dated Sept. 1, 2014, offers parents who are concerned about the sexuality of their children several courses of action at their disposal, reflecting an aversion to homosexuality that permeates many institutions offering psychological support across China.
If parents do not wish their children to become gay, they should encourage them to make friends with children of the opposite sex, reads the article, which is accredited to the school itself. “Always hanging out with friends of the same gender will only foster the development of homosexuality.” If a child has an overabundance of trust in a same-sex friend, the article continues, parents should find a way to renew their child’s trust in them. “That way, the child will leave the trust in their friend behind them, and the chances of homosexuality occurring will be lowered.”
A spokesperson for the Shandong Department of Education’s Office of Further Education said on Thursday that an investigation was underway. The office’s deputy director Zhao Yuanzheng said that a newly formed investigation team had already visited the school and was processing material provided to them by the college. The investigation team will submit their findings on Monday to their seniors at the provincial and municipal departments of education for Shandong and Jinan respectively, she said.
Yang Jie’s mother does not expect that the investigation will lead to criminal prosecution of the school’s staff, but she does hope that it will conclude with the closing down of the facility, and the reimbursement of all parents’ tuition fees. “The experiences the school has inflicted on these children are just so painful,” she said.
Yang is now adjusting to life in mainstream schooling, while for her mother, the experience has caused her to reflect on her own parenting. “Children go through these spells,” she said. “Parents just need to be patient.”
To protect their identities, the names of Chen Xinran, Luo Sheng, and Yang Jie have been changed.
Additional reporting by Yuan Lu.
(Header image: A student in camouflage uniform walks beside the perimeter fence of Shandong Science and Technology Defense College in Jinan, Sept. 21, 2016. Owen Churchill/Sixth Tone)