On Sept. 1, hundreds of angry parents in the Chinese city of Leiyang gathered outside six schools to protest a government plan to place 9,000 fifth- and sixth-grade children in expensive, remote, hastily constructed, and formaldehyde-laced private boarding schools.
When the protesting parents received no answers from the school authorities, they marched to a Leiyang government building and voiced their demands until riot police were sent to clear them early on Sept. 2. A large but indeterminate number of protesters were injured and 46 were arrested, locals say.
Authorities in Leiyang, located in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, had made the decision in order to conform with a regulation from the central leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) designed to combat rising student-to-teacher ratios. Rising urbanization has caused the average class size to swell from 50 to 100 students. The CCP policy aims to bring the ratio down to 66 students per teacher.
But lacking the financial means to expand the availability of public schooling to bring down class sizes, the Leiyang municipal government instead appears to have colluded with private investors, causing the public uproar.
The unrest in Leiyang reflects a common problem faced by local authorities across China, who struggle to maintain public services and carry out policy as shrinking revenues — brought on by a combination of corruption and economic malaise — limit their ability to do so.
Following initial protests and arrests, the number of demonstrators had risen to over 10,000, to which the police dispatched thousands of officers to control the crowd.
Mr. Zhang, who was in the demonstration told The Epoch Times: “There were people everywhere within a kilometer (0.6 mi). Most of the children and elderly went home before midnight, but the young and middle-aged were prepared to protest overnight, asking the police chief to resign.”
In the days following the protest, the police imposed strict watch over the city, particularly at the high-speed rail station and important intersections. According to Leiyang resident Chen Yanhui, who spoke to the New York-based NTD Television on Sept. 4, police tracked down those who had participated in the demonstrations and sought many of them out for “conversations.”
“Police said they released all the protesters, but we can’t verify this and people don’t believe them. Furthermore, it’s hard to count how many people were injured,” a protester surnamed Li told The Epoch Times on Sept. 3.
The authorities also issued threats to parents whose children were sent to the private schools, with a message saying “if you plan on protesting, prepare for jail.”
Zhang said that the demonstrations were sparked by the high costs of tuition at the private schools in an area where the average monthly salary is around 2,000 yuan ($300).
In multiple provinces across China, debt-laden local authorities are finding themselves hard-pressed to maintain upkeep, leading to protests among public employees.
The Leiyang protests come just months after civil servants working for the municipal government complained about delayed salaries on June 13. The Leiyang government is several billion yuan in debt, and a recent audit by the Communist Party central leadership found that the Leiyang authorities had been hiding the true scope of the crisis.
Data from 2012 to 2017 shows that of 31 provinces in China, only eastern China’s Zhejiang experienced positive revenue. China’s economy has been weakened by increasing wages, capital outflows, corruption, and recent tariffs imposed on it by the United States in response to Beijing’s protectionism and unwillingness to abide by fair trade practices.