1 room, 5 bunk beds, 10 kids: Chinese students protest school restrictions, costs

BEIJING – “Smash the cafeteria! Smash the supermarket! Smash the gate!” chanted thousands of Chinese high school students during a violent protest at their school on Sept. 14.

The students at the Zhecheng High School in central China, which is considered to be the best public school in the region, broke tables, smashed plates and eventually tore down the gates of the campus.

They were protesting against the school’s so-called “enclosed education system,” which confines them to the campus – and the high cost of food and other daily items they need to buy. After initial denials by school officials, news of the protest came out late last week. 

Tight quarters and lots of restrictions

Formerly a public school, Zhecheng – where tuition still costs approximately $530 per year – became a boarding school at the start of the new academic year. Boarding costs add up to an additional $130 per year.

Under the new boarding rules, students are only allowed to leave the campus one day every other week, according to Xiao Yang, a 16-year-old student who spoke with NBC News.

Every student is required to get up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 10:00 p.m. Studying 16 hours a day, students only break for three and a half hours for meals. Students who fail to follow this schedule face punishment.

“I have to run from the classroom to my dorm every night,” said Xiao. And life in the dorm isn’t any easier.

“I live on the fifth floor, but I have to go to the first floor to brush my teeth and wash my face,” said Xiao. He added that getting ready for bed in the 40 minutes he’s allotted before lights out is a challenge because “there is always a long line to the bathroom.”

Zhecheng High School was not originally designed as a boarding school. To make sure the school could accommodate all the students in dorms this year, the school reduced students’ enrollment from around 10,000 to fewer than 8,000, but the school still faces overcrowding.

Xiao said he has to share a tiny room with nine other students. With five bunk beds, there is only room for one student to scoot by in between all the beds.

Even with this year’s reduction in enrollment, there are still 2,520 students in the freshman grade. School officials divide the students into 36 groups with 70 students each.

Since students are required to stay on campus, they are forced to make all their purchases on campus, too – but students believe things are overpriced.

A student posted a typical complaint on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service: “A bottle of water costs 3 yuan (50 cents) while supermarkets off campus charge only 1 yuan (16 cents).”

The protest at the school was initially sparked by a dispute between a student and two cafeteria workers over quality and sanitation. Other enraged students began to break tables and soon the situation spiraled out of the control.

Teachers were too scared to stop the students and waited for the police to come. The protest lasted about 40 minutes. No one was injured and four students were detained for about six hours.

'Our education system has problems'

When the pictures of the incident were first posted online last week, they spread quickly despite the school initially denying that any protests had taken place. Comments online almost universally supported the students.

One blogger wrote, “Thumbs up! Finally someone did what I wanted to do when I was a student.”

Another criticized corruption in Chinese society, “What happened with these teachers, doctors and lawyers? Too sad! This society has no way out.”

Zhecheng is not a unique case. Students throughout the country have expressed dissatisfaction with the system.

Despite the expansion of the Chinese higher education system over the last decade, competition for top tier university slots has become more intense. Students at schools like the one in Zhecheng begin preparing for the college entrance exam in first grade.

Deng Dingyuan, a professor at Huanan Agriculture University expressed his view on Weibo: “Are traditional methods of control effective with the generation who grew up in the Internet era? How long can we push back the reform of our education system?”

Eventually, the Zhecheng County government told Chinese news organizations about the incident, but denied that protests involved thousands of students. The local government said there were hardly more than 20 students who had an argument with the cafeteria staff, and that four students had broken a table.

According to last week’s state-run “People’s Daily,” the Zhecheng County government fired the principal and deputy principal because of the effect the incident had on the school and society.

But to Xiao, the most important thing is whether the school will change its rules forcing students to stay on campus.

“We did not do anything wrong, nor did our principals,” said Yang. “Our education system has problems.”