HONG KONG—Tensions were running high in the eastern Chinese city of Nanchang Friday as riot police armed with live ammunition occupied every major vocational school in the city ahead of a planned protest march on Sunday.
"There are still more than 100 armed police [here]," one student from the Jiangxi Clothing Technical College told RFA's Cantonese service. "A lot of people are getting their luggage ready to go home."
But he said student leaders were still mobilizing their fellow students to take part in a demonstration planned for Sunday, in which students from other colleges were also expected to take part.
Another student, from the Jiangxi Financial University, said riot police were now guarding all the vocational colleges in the provincial capital, Nanchang.
"The armed police are patrolling everywhere. The atmosphere is very tense. They have guns and police dogs," he said.
Riot police moved into the provincial capital of Nanchang earlier in the week to end several days of rioting by vocational college students who were angry that their degree certificates wouldn't have the status they been promised.
Students are being provoked. Nearby residents then take this chaotic moment to loot the school. All the computers were taken away. Female students are so frightened and male students are holding clubs to fight off from the looters.
Cars were overturned and burned, and thousands of people took to the streets, some in protest, and some for opportunistic looting of shops and university equipment.
Video footage shot by eyewitnesses showed a large crowd running screaming from police with riot shields and batons. At least one policeman fell to his knees, apparently hit by something thrown from the top of the bridge.
Another eyewitness video clip showed a large fire burning on a road bridge. Still photographs taken by students at the scene showed campus buildings ablaze and a looted store.
Students at the colleges say they are angry at the schools' management for luring them to enrol with the promise of first-class degree certificates, then being unable to deliver.
The Jiangxi Clothing Technical Institute student who spoke to RFA's Cantonese service said he was only in his freshman year, but that those who had been at the college two or three years were furious.
"They have put a lot more into it. We have only been here a couple of months, but they've been here two or three years, and those two or three years have been wasted. They are all very angry," he said.
Official media have reported that 18,000 students in Jiangxi province are unhappy about the news that their degrees won't be what they expected, but steered clear of reporting the riots or armed police action.
An officer who answered the phone at the Nanchang division of the People's Armed Police said they had no knowledge of events in the city. But sources said reinforcements had been drafted in from neighboring Hunan province ahead of Sunday's rally.
Students from Jiangxi province's Clothing Vocational College marched through campus Monday after state media reported that school authorities had deceived new students about their eventual qualifications and issued fake diplomas.
China's state television aired a lengthy investigative report Monday on how the privately run college had recruited about 20,000 students, well above approved quotas, by promising them diplomas it was not qualified to award.
A teacher surnamed Wang who is also responsible for campus recruitment told RFA’s Mandarin service that the rioting had been caused by a misunderstanding due to the fact that the existing policy lacks transparency.
“Education authorities, including the provincial bureau for education, did not inform the students clearly of their status—how their diplomas would be classified,” Wang said. “They were not recruited through the normal recruiting channel. So some people fanned the fire by saying that their diplomas would not be recognized as college diplomas.”
A local newspaper reporter at the Jiangxi Metropolis News who asked not to be named, said the paper had received requests for help from the students but the paper wasn’t permitted to cover the story. “We did not file a story about it. We could not write a report about it,” the reporter said.
A female student who declined to be identified told RFA’s Cantonese service the rioting had erupted after students learned from an official Chinese news broadcast that their educational qualifications wouldn’t be recognized as college degrees. Local residents, observing the chaos, looted and vandalized the school, she said.
“Students are being provoked. Nearby residents then take this chaotic moment to loot the school. All the computers were taken away. Female students are so frightened and male students are holding clubs to fight off the looters,” the student said.
“We were unable to go to sleep. Then several hundred anti-riot police came. Today the situation is much better,” she said. Some students and looters had been detained, she said, but communication with the school was impossible late Wednesday.
A teacher from Jiangxi private college who asked not to be identified said teachers can earn bonuses by recruiting students.
“Every student has to pay 40,000 yuan from the beginning and then another 40,000 yuan for the tuition fee. Most of these kinds of schools charge expensive tuition fees. Even the public colleges are now running these kinds of courses… I don’t know why the local media did not report this issue,” the teacher said.
Students at another private college in Jiangxi, the Institute of Vocational Education, meanwhile plan a protest on Sunday.
“We urge the students from different schools in Jiangxi to join the protest this coming Sunday,” the student told RFA’s Cantonese service. “We believe there will be several thousand students in the protest. We just want to have justice.”
A staff member at the campus recruitment hotline suggested to RFA’s Mandarin service that additional factors had prompted the rioting and said an investigation was under way.
“I don’t think the diploma is the main reason for the trouble. I think there are other reasons. But I can’t give you further information,” the staff member said. “The school administration is dealing with the issue… Some students will be reimbursed for the tuition fees. If they want to continue as students of the school, they may do so. Those that want to quit will get their tuition fees back. They are mainly angry about their status and classification,” the hotline official said.
“But the diplomas have not even been issued yet and they were causing trouble. The provincial bureau for education has set up an investigative unit on campus to answer questions from students,” the official added.
Private colleges have boomed in China in the last decade, enrolling those who fall short in highly competitive exams requited for admission to prestigious—and far more tightly regulated—state universities.
A similar riot erupted at a private college in the central province of Henan in June. In that incident, thousands of students who were angry at the wording on their diplomas ransacked their campus.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lei Kin-kwan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.