China has just released a new document on handling school safety incidents, but it’s probably not what you think. While the new ‘Opinions’ call for a focus on preventing safety incidents such as fires, food safety issues, and infectious disease outbreaks, these problems aren’t its own focus at all.
Instead, they primarily address methods for containing the aftermath of these safety incidents; such as methods for resolving disputes over responsibility and compensation. Insisting these matters be handled through legal channels is generally a good thing, but it’s also revealing about what has been the biggest concern for officials, and what the Opinions really seeks to accomplish.
A sizable portion of the document addresses the problem of “campus commotions” (校闹), parties descending on a school to protest and demand explanations or compensation after an incident. In some cases this reflects lack of faith in courts and local officials to provide remedies through the proper channels, but it is also commonly believed to have become a somewhat ritualized a means of extorting a larger settlement from the school. While the new legal authority tries to discourage those causing the disruptions, it also tells officials to stop giving payments just to ‘buy the peace’ which creates a situation where a ‘bigger commotion bring bigger settlements’.
It’s worth noting that in 2015, China’s Criminal Law was amended to criminalize a similar phenomenon in the medical field. Patients unhappy with the quality or cost of medical care had taken to to using radical tactics such as occupying hospital lobbies, or even attacking staff, in order to be heard or to demand compensation. In the worst cases, professional protesters or thugs were hired; a situation also mentioned in the new Opinions on ‘Campus Commotions’.
The Opinions lay out eight specific types of conduct that may constitute public security violations, which are punishable by up to 15 days imprisonment without a court trial. The list will give you some idea of what such ‘commotions’ have looked like in the past:
- Intentionally harming others or intentionally destroying property;
- Occupying or damaging school buildings, facilities, or equipment;
- Putting up obstacles, posting signs or graffiti, setting off firecrackers, playing funeral music, laying wreaths, spraying filth, cutting off water or electricity, blocking entrances, or surrounding offices and roads in the schools;
- Placing corpses in schools or other public places;
- Illegally restricting the physical liberty of school staff and students by means such as not permitting them to leave;
- Following and badgering the persons responsible for the school, or insulting or intimidating staff and students;
- Carrying inflammable or explosive hazardous materials and controlled instruments into schools;
- Other conduct disrupting the order of education and teaching or violating the rights and interests of others in their persons or property
School officials are instructed to immediately report any ‘campus commotions’ that disrupt school activities or violate the rights of staff and students, and also mandate police response. Where the situation is thought to rise to the level of a crime, the criminal justice sector is told to act quickly and sternly.
Unfortunately, the Opinions also go beyond the question of safety incidents to add that this hard-line approach should be considered when addressing illegal assemblies or protests by teachers, students, or parents for other reasons. This could conceivably include migrant parents protesting their children’s lack of access to education, teachers protesting low wages, or events surrounding sexual harassment or workplace conditions.
The document is meant to help by creating credible legal channels and processes to help schools and communities navigate a difficult type of dispute following a potential tragedy. Maybe it really will help, and campus commotions might well be a real problem that needs addressing. What is interesting, aside from the list of peculiar protesting tactics, is that even such a benign document comes across as so defensive. Even the calls for transparency regarding safety incidents as a way of handling public opinion are followed by calls to hold those spreading rumors accountable. It’s as if the schools and officials are besieged by their own staffs and the communities they serve, and many must feel that way.