China Power

The Sad Case of Wu Yongzhi

Was a Shenzhen high school teacher really solely responsible for wrongly promising parents places for their kids?

Shenzhen Daily has reported that a Shenzhen high school teacher has jumped out of the window of his 15th floor apartment after being accused of fraud.

According to Chinese media reports, on the afternoon August 22, a group of parents showed up at Shenzhen’s Xixiang Middle School, expecting to enrol their children.  In late April, a teacher there named Wu Yongzhi had apparently promised places for 52 students in exchange for 1.18 million yuan ($185,000) in red envelopes. But on that hot August afternoon, Xixiang’s principal, Bao Qingping, said he knew nothing about this. Wu was reportedly called into the office, admitted fraud, and promised to make restitutions. The next morning, he jumped out the window.

The Chinese media is reporting it as a tragic case of individual greed gone awry, but on the school’s bulletin board, students defended Wu, saying he was the school’s most respected teacher and couldn’t have committed such fraud out of his own volition. 

Others have pointed out the inconsistencies in media reports. How could he have convinced 52 parents on his own to turn over 1.18 million yuan? How was he able to present parents with contracts bearing official stamps and signatures from both the school and local education authority? Also, Wu didn’t need the money: he had an apartment, a car, and a 100,000 yuan annual salary. When Wu’s parents checked his bank account, they found it to be empty. Where had the 1.18 million yuan gone? 

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Some netizens argued that if Wu were a real criminal, he wouldn’t have been so contrite. He apologized profusely to parents, and emptied his bank account to pay back a portion of the money he had taken from them. He complained to his own parents that he was being hounded, and that his only way out was death. And then he killed himself.

So what really happened?    

First, it’s important to understand how the Chinese high school admissions system works. Because of China’s compulsory education law, schooling up to grade nine is free and guaranteed, but students need to test into a senior high school. To fill revenue gaps, Chinese high schools are authorized to take a certain number of students whose test scores don’t meet the cut-off score, but who are willing to pay their way in. The quota is usually 5 to 10 percent of the student population, and the test scores can only be a few points lower than the cut-off score. 

In theory, there’s heavy monitoring to ensure that schools don’t abuse this policy, but in practice this policy is so heavily abused that in many of China’s best high schools, one-third to one-half of all students pay their way in. This business is so lucrative that school authorities spend most of their work day secretly negotiating with parents.     

But how did Wu, an admired and beloved teacher, get involved in this dirty game?  He didn’t need the money, but he may well have wanted to advance his career, and thus had no choice but to play.

Rumours have spread on the Internet that Xixiang’s principal had taken a cut of teachers’ wages, appointed a relative to manage the school cafeteria, and secured jobs for unqualified cronies. If true, then Bao would be no different from many other Chinese high school principals, meaning that if Wu wanted to enter his inner circle, he would likely have had to prove his loyalty by volunteering for dirty assignments, such as getting 1.18 million yuan from parents. 

Because selling high school places is so common in China, Wu probably would have thought it was a dirty but not risky job. But he was proved tragically wrong. We don’t know how the plan went awry, but there are reports that Bao angered a high-ranking official, who sent a team to investigate the school’s finances and admissions. If true, then Bao would have been under intense scrutiny, and thus would have had no choice but to turn away those 52 parents. 

Now those parents would surely have known it was Bao and not Wu who had broken the agreement, but they wouldn’t risk offending a powerful principal. Wu could probably see that he would have to be the fall guy, because the local education authorities and the parents would line up behind the principal. And, given Wu’s social status and how much his students respected him, him going to jail was just not an option.   

Reading Wu’s story I couldn’t help but think of Robert Wilkis, a Harvard graduate who dreamt of international development work, but ended up part of a Wall Street insider trading ring linked to junk bond king Michael Milken. As James Stewart recounts in Den of Thieves, the guilt-ridden Wilkis became trapped inside the ring out of loyalty and sympathy to the other participants, and when the police arrested everyone, he alone of all the culprits maintained his loyalty and sympathy, and was thus dealt with the most harshly even though he had benefited the least from the conspiracy.

Wu and Wilkis are both tragic characters. But the real tragedy is how the dens of thieves on Wall Street and in Chinese schools can and will continue to lure good people with a little ambition into destroying themselves. 

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Akira Kurosawa was right: The bad sleep well, indeed.