In China, Extreme Boot Camps for Kids Are Multiplying. So Are Accidents.
SHANGHAI — One afternoon last August, Fang Qingqing received the call that every parent dreads. It was an instructor at the summer camp her 12-year-old son was attending: Her boy was badly injured and needed to be hospitalized.
The camp — located in the countryside near the eastern city of Nanjing — was designed to give kids aged 9-12 a weeklong taste of military life. Each day, they would get up at dawn, clean their rooms, then take part in a range of tough activities: assault courses, long hikes, boxing matches.
These “character-building” outdoor adventures have become hugely popular among middle-class Chinese families in recent years. Fang, who hopes to send her son to an international school in the future, thought the Nanjing camp might help his application.
“I was hoping he’d pick up some skills for managing his daily life,” Fang tells Sixth Tone. “I know international schools appreciate this kind of outdoor experience.”
But the danger in this camp was very real. On the second day, the instructors ordered Fang’s son to scale a four-meter-high wall. He wasn’t wearing a harness. Before he reached the top, he fell hard, fracturing his tibia and fibula. He ended up spending three months in the hospital, and had to miss two months of school.
Fang is just relieved his injuries weren’t even worse. “The accident didn’t have any permanent consequences,” she says. “But the experience left us shaken.”
With students across China starting their summer vacations, it’s likely that many families will soon undergo similar ordeals. China’s summer camp industry has enjoyed massive growth in recent years, as parents believe the holiday activities will help their children’s applications to overseas colleges. But the activities are subject to little regulation — and are often shockingly unsafe.
Spike in injuries
China’s summer camp market grew fivefold between 2018 and 2021 — rising from 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) to 100 billion yuan — and it’s predicted to quadruple in size again by 2028. There are around 50,000 registered summer camp providers in the country, and likely many more that are operating without regular licenses.
The industry’s rise has been driven by the fierce competition in China’s education system. Chinese parents have come to view the summer as a crucial period — a time when their children can get a head start on their peers, or potentially fall behind.
Summer camp organizers play on this anxiety by promising to help kids develop skills that parents value. Many focus on purely academic subjects, such as mathematics. But, increasingly, parents are also pushing their kids to develop personal and social skills — especially those who plan to send their children to study abroad.
Outdoor adventures have become particularly popular, as many parents believe they can help build children’s resilience and independence. There is also a widespread belief that such experiences are valued by overseas schools and universities, industry insiders tell Sixth Tone. A growing number of Chinese parents are signing up their children for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award: a British award that requires young people to take part in a series of activities, including sports, voluntary work, and long cross-country hikes.
“Students can put the award on their résumés, and that’s good for (applying to) universities,” says Devin Perno, a summer camp leader and organizer who has worked in China for nine years. “It’s very competitive, especially now in China with international schools.”
That’s led to a proliferation of summer events designed to test kids’ endurance: mountain hikes, desert treks, military-style boot camps. But many of these activities are poorly run by staff that lack experience and training, putting children’s safety in jeopardy, industry insiders say.
Several tragedies have already occurred. In 2021, a 16-year-old boy died while taking part in a weeklong hike across the Tengger Desert. The child reportedly collapsed of exhaustion on the third day of the journey, with an autopsy later confirming the cause of death to be heat stroke. Two of the camp leaders were put on trial for negligent homicide earlier this year.
The boy’s mother, Li Yan, had paid 22,000 yuan for her son to attend the camp, believing it would help his chances of studying abroad. “A teacher from the school’s overseas study advice center told me the activity can benefit students’ spirit of adventure, and that foreigners definitely love such experiences,” Li told Sanlian Life Week, a Chinese current affairs magazine.
Other incidents involving children suffering severe injuries while attending summer camps have been reported in Chinese media. A search of China’s judicial database using the keywords “summer camp injuries” produces 180 results; 63% of the convictions were made after 2018.
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many cases involving injuries at summer camps are settled privately, with event organizers going to great lengths to ensure incidents never make it to court. Fang has experienced this firsthand.
After her son’s accident, Fang reviewed surveillance camera footage from the camp, and saw that her son had been wearing a helmet but no safety rope when he fell from the wall. The coaches had also failed to provide adequate safety training. Given this evidence, the camp organizer quickly agreed to provide Fang with full compensation for her son’s medical treatment.
“They didn’t hesitate to compensate us,” says Fang. “It’s important to look for larger-scale companies — they want to continue doing business and don’t want any accidents to interrupt their plans.”
Zhang Beidi, a summer camp coach who lives in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, says that this attitude is common in the industry. Whenever an accident occurs, the first reaction of many organizers is to do everything possible to keep it low-profile.
“They’ll remind the witnesses not to share what they saw on any social media platforms,” Zhang says. “I once saw a child, who wasn’t wearing his helmet properly, bump into the rocks while climbing. He returned to the ground with his face covered in blood. The event organizer talked to people onsite to make sure the incident didn’t get out.”
Accidents are always a possibility during outdoor activities, but Zhang — who has worked in the summer camp industry since 2020 — says the situation in China is particularly worrying. “The more you know about this business, the more scared you get,” she says.
Before becoming a coach, Zhang attended an outdoor training course run by a company in Yangshuo, a popular climbing destination in Guangxi. She also took the Wilderness Advanced First Aid course, which provides specialist first aid training for wilderness leaders. But few of her colleagues have similar qualifications. Often, camp organizers hire coaches with limited experience on temporary contracts, to keep costs low.
“The business is getting bigger and bigger, but there aren’t enough reliable leaders or organizers,” Zhang says. “Many individual coaches just advertise themselves on social media and try to attract families to sign up for activities. That’s terrible. Without proper standards, the consequences could be horrible.”
In March, Zhang had to lead a group of 18 teenagers on a mountain hike in the eastern city of Hangzhou all by herself. Normally, there should be at least one coach for every eight students on that kind of activity, and she felt under “huge pressure.”
“Some of the students were not in my field of vision when I was leading,” says Zhang. “We hiked in the mountains and a bamboo forest. Because it rained before we arrived, it was slippery, and there were steep slopes. Any accident could have happened.”
Zhang has become so concerned about the lack of safety precautions, she is considering quitting the industry altogether. “Thinking about the possible consequences, I’m scared,” she says. “I’m not confident in pursuing this job further.”
Bai, the owner of a company organizing outdoor activities and summer camps in south China, agrees that there is a systemic problem with unqualified staff in the industry.
“I would say that over 80% of current outdoor programs are led by people without the right qualifications,” Bai, who gave only his surname for privacy reasons, tells Sixth Tone. “All outdoor sports come with potential risks. That’s why we need good coaches to keep things under control.”
The loose regulation of the industry means that companies have little incentive to provide staff with proper training. Summer camp providers have to register with China’s industry and commerce authorities, but they do not have to inform the government about what kind of activities they are organizing, Bai says.
That means there is no way for the government to check whether companies are using qualified coaches for dangerous activities such as climbing, diving, or desert hiking. And given the fierce competition in the summer camp market, many companies prefer to avoid hiring experienced coaches to keep costs low.
“The easiest way to control costs is to cut expenditure on hiring,” says Bai. “A coach with the right training certificates and experience costs much more to hire, and their value is not always so apparent, because people assume there won’t be accidents.”
The gung-ho attitudes of both organizers and parents make some summer camps particularly dangerous. Bai says that parents often want the coaches to push their children to their limits, but he warns that only experienced coaches understand how to do so without putting a child’s safety at risk.
“Everyone’s limits are different,” Bai says. “As a professional organization or coach, your responsibility is to correctly understand their abilities and make timely adjustments.”
But in many cases, camp organizers lack this judgment. Xiao Shuang, a summer camp leader with over a decade’s experience in the industry, says that newcomers to the industry often “don’t understand children well enough.”
“Most summer camp products have been designed to attract parents,” she tells Sixth Tone. “The activities on offer are far beyond children’s capabilities, like hiking in high-altitude areas.”
The recent tragedy in the Tengger Desert was a classic example of the problems with the industry, according to Xiao. If the staff had been better trained and the activity had been less extreme, the boy’s death could have been avoided, she says.
“There must have been lots of signs before the boy eventually fell,” says Xiao. “The tragedy has everything to do with the wild and unregulated development of the industry.”
Fang’s son has now fully recovered from the accident, but it has left some emotional scars. The boy is still reluctant to take part in outdoor sports, Fang says.
“He was unable to play organized sports for six entire months,” she says. “After that, he became less confident in such activities.”
Fang, meanwhile, has vowed never to let her son take part in such an extreme activity again. This summer, she is considering sending him to a science camp, which includes almost no outdoor activities.
Contributions: Li Wei; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Children take part in a strength training exercise at a summer camp in Shibing County, Guizhou province, July 2022. VCG)