Hundreds clash with police amid protests over school campus switch in China

Dozens of police officers wounded in protest over order to relocate pupils to ease squeeze on education system

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 11:37pm

Dozens of protesters were detained and police officers wounded after parents took to the streets in southern China on the weekend to oppose government plans to send their children to a private boarding school.

City police said 46 people were taken into custody and 30 officers wounded in clashes involving hundreds of people outside the Leiyang public security bureau headquarters in Hunan province late on Saturday night.

The clashes showed how quickly public distrust could turn into social unrest, and highlighted the need for local government officials to be more consultative in implementing change, observers said.

The incident was triggered by a provincial order to cut class sizes at schools in the city’s stretched education system to a maximum of 66 pupils by relocating all fifth and sixth graders to a private campus.

The teachers would be transferred with the pupils and no extra fees would be charged but the children would have to live in dormitories during the week.

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The change would affect nearly 10,000 pupils who are due to start the new school year on Monday.

Parents petitioned the authorities in open letter to reverse the decision and discontent grew as the pupils reported to the new campus, a branch of a high school affiliated with Hunan Normal University.

In online posts that have since been deleted, parents complained that some dormitories were unfinished and smells in the newly refurbished buildings raised concerns about indoor pollutants.

On Saturday, some parents mounted protests at their schools in central Leiyang, blocked a national highway and demonstrated outside the Leiyang government offices. Police detained five people and cleared the road, according to Leiyang police.

Leiyang mayor Li Xiangyang met representatives of the parents that evening but once the meeting was over demonstrators mounted another protest outside the city’s public security bureau headquarters to demand the release of the five detainees, police said.

Ten more were detained and later released them but in the meantime about 600 people had gathered outside the headquarters.

The protesters threw water bottles, bricks, fireworks and petrol bottles at government officials and police officers, wounding the 30 officers and damaging the police building and vehicles, the authorities said.

Officers detained 46 more people before the clashes were brought under control early Sunday morning, according to police. Forty-one of the detainees were released with a police warning, leaving 10 in custody, Hunan news portal reported.

The provincial government has since ordered the city to find a solution to the public concerns and promised to investigate any “irregularities” or alleged corruption, according to the report.

The city had also ordered tests on the indoor air quality at the school, the municipal government said in a statement.

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Chu Zhaohui, from the National Institute of Education Sciences, said the incident highlighted the uneven allocation of resources in education as well as broader social dissatisfaction.

“What led to it was not just education policies but discontent with local governance,” Chu said.

Beijing-based political commentator Hu Xingdou said parents had mounted similar protests in other parts of the country in the last two years and this incident showed how easy social unrest could erupt over mishandling of a seemingly small issue.

“Local governments have to face the challenge because they are the ones dealing with residents and face the consequences of social unrest, especially in the social media age and when society is in transition,” Hu said.

“Discontent can snowball and turn into big protests. Local authorities must improve governance from simply imposing blocks, such as deleting online postings, to ... governing in accordance with the law.”