2010: Years before #MeToo, a Chinese daily helped bring down a CEO’s predatory empire

2010: Years before #MeToo, a Chinese daily helped bring down a CEO’s predatory empire

In 2010, years before China’s #MeToo movement reached its full stride, Southern Metropolis Daily published the first investigation on sexual assault in the workplace in China.

The piece discusses the case of Sunmoon Group, one of China’s largest cram school chains spanning over 300 locations across China and abroad, and its CEO Song Shanmu, who had systematically harassed the group’s female employees and allegedly raped or sexually assaulted seven of them. The investigation dived into the culture of misogyny, harassment, and surveillance of the company, which had over 280 rules controlling everything from dress requirements to body weight.
The published story was pivotal in Song’s criminal case and his sentencing to four years in prison for rape. Song’s case became the first criminal court victory for victims of sexual assault in the workplace in China. Even more, this investigative report contributed to changing how the Chinese media represents this issue.

About Southern Metropolis Daily

Southern Metropolis Daily, in operation since 1997, is part of the Nanfang Media Group and is known as an independent, critical voice. Throughout the newspaper’s tenure, its staff and journalists have been repeatedly detained, arrested and questioned by police. Despite these obstacles, the paper has won multiple awards and recognitions including the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2005.

The author of the article, Li Sipan, is an investigative journalist and one of the most renowned commentators on women’s issues in China. She has garnered several awards for her work, including the Bayer Young Environmental Journalist Award and the Southern Metropolis News Award. She has worked for the Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly, and her writings have appeared in China Digital Times and the Initium.

Sexual assault within institutions – Is it just an isolated incident? Behind the corporate hierarchy, discipline and punishment, numerous operational details, and some management models packaged even with philosophical implications, are there hidden demons supporting such violations? Our newspaper’s reporter conducted face-to-face interviews with the victims and insiders behind the suspected sexual assault case involving Song Shanmu, uncovering the truth behind the cloud of suspicion of sexual assault allegations.

“The CEO’s empire: The Sunmoon Group after allegations of sexual assault”

By Li Sipan


This was a poorly decorated, outdated space – one bedroom and a living room – emitting a musty smell. It looked like it needed cleaning. It was after 8 p.m., which wasn’t the normal end of work hours yet. Luo Yun thought cleaning was just a routine office task, though she had already made up her mind to resign. A teaching position with a more relaxing environment and higher salary was waiting for her to start. She had only agreed to stay with the company for another 10 days to finish teaching an English beginner group with whom she had already bonded.

She was scrubbing the floor while her direct superior, the CEO of the allegedly “transnational education enterprise” Sunmoon Group, Song Shanmu [note: the company’s name is Shanmu Group in Chinese], was tirelessly trying to persuade her with kind words. He hoped she wouldn’t leave Sunmoon, which would have a promising future for development. Half an hour later, Luo Yun hadn’t changed her mind. Song turned angry.

He said, “I’ve been in the business world for so many years. How can a little girl like you make me dance around?”

Song’s words and actions suddenly plunged Luo Yun into fear. He called someone named “Xiao San” and told Luo that if  “Xiao San” were to abduct her, he would simply act as if he hadn’t seen anything. He said that he had gone out to change a tyre and then disappeared.

“The contrast in his attitude was too drastic. I felt very confused and didn’t know what to do. I dared not to resist. I was afraid he would kill me.”

Murder house

This room has witnessed the panic of at least seven girls. Four of them accepted interviews with the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter, claiming that they were sexually assaulted by Song Shanmu. Their descriptions of the location mostly match the furnishings in this perpetually curtained house. The house didn’t seem to be regularly inhabited, but he was evidently very familiar with the arrangement of items. The girls were all brought in under the guise of “cleaning up.”

Luo Yun could only reluctantly agree to stay. However, Song insisted that she must look into his eyes to show sincerity. At that moment, she was sitting on the bed, while he sat on a chair beside it. The bed was oddly covered with the white satin sheets commonly found in hotels. He approached to unbutton her uniform.

“CEO, please don’t do this. I’ve always had a good impression of you,” Luo pleaded.

“That’s because you don’t know me. I arranged for you to work at the headquarters. If you leave now, how embarrassing it will be for me,” he said.  Continuously using threats involving “Xiao San”, he even boasted that he “fucked over two men.” Luo Yun had no choice.

He pulled out a digital camera that he always carried with him – two other girls, Lan Yu and Shen Wei (both pseudonyms) also told reporters that Song used two Sony digital cameras, and he always had a phone bag and a camera bag around his waist. Luo Yun closed her eyes in embarrassment. He took four photos, the last two of which were of her private parts. Previously, Lan Yu had also been similarly photographed.

At this point, Song Shanmu’s attitude softened. He said to Luo Yun, “You are filled with negative energy right now. I need to help you deal with it.”

“Negative energy” is an essential term in Song Shanmu’s vocabulary – a bad mood is a negative energy. When the girls express “negative energy” in the dormitory, the CEO might even personally talk to them to resolve the “negative energy.”

Previously, Luo Yun, who had a poor attitude at work, had already been summoned for a meeting once. Song Shanmu, a talented speaker, called her to Room XX02 opposite her dormitory. Song talked about the origin of humans, “How did humans come into being?”

“Through evolution,” Luo Yun replied.

“No, it’s through the ‘string of the heaven,” he said. This was Song’s unique mystical cosmology, and he also mentioned that Stephen Hawking supported this view. As usual, he showed off his intelligence, saying “The CEO studies anthropology.”

Song asked Luo Yun to lie down on the bed, and he covered her naked body with a white towel. “Imagine yourself lying on the grass, relax… breathe…” This wasn’t a new line. While cleaning the house Lan Yu, who had never had a sexual experience, was asked by Song to “take a test on the bed to see if you are intelligent.” She laid down with her clothes on, and Song covered her with a blanket. She still didn’t notice anything unusual.

“Before this, I admired him a lot,” Lan told the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter, saying that Song mentioned similar phrases, including “green grassland.”

At that moment, he took out a massager from the bedside table drawer and said to Luo Yun, “If you can reach orgasm within half an hour, it means you have completely rid yourself of negative energy and sincerely let go of all reluctance…” This spherical-headed, rod-shaped massager also slipped under Lan Yu’s blanket.

“I sometimes feel like he is a child. He seems not to really understand sex,” said Yu Jin, Song Shanmu’s former assistant from Canada to the Southern Metropolis Daily report. “He asked me if I think women would actively want sex or if he should use some pornographic films to stimulate them.”

Considering the details shared by the three complainants, it was revealed that due to a disease of the pituitary gland, Song Shanmu had some undisclosed physiological issues, which he did not hide.

“I was very scared at the time, and he said not to be afraid, that he was not a healthy and full person… He said he couldn’t satisfy women physically, but he wanted to conquer all women,” recounted Lan Yu to the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter, mimicking Song Shanmu’s fist-waving gesture when saying this.

Both Lan Yu and Shen Wei were severely slapped when they resisted. “I practise taekwondo. If I give you a few slaps, you’ll faint. Is resistance useful? In Shenzhen, what does one person’s death count for?” he said to Lan Yu.

“I think my mom raised me so hard. I can’t just die like this, so I can only do as he says,” she said.

Similar to Lan Yu, Shen Wei has had no other sexual experiences so far. When the reporter asked about the details of the abuse, she hung up the call and wrote on QQ, “I don’t want to say. I’ll write it to you.” That day, she happened to be on her period.

Family ceremony

“In the eyes of many employees at Sunmoon, he is a god-like figure,” Lan Yu told the reporter. He enjoyed talking about the ways of Confucius and Mencius. Every time he went to inspect the branch schools, several employees needed to greet him at the airport holding flowers. He appeared to be “kind and approachable yet supremely noble.”

On Monday morning, from 9:33 am. until 3 or 4 p.m., there was a lengthy staff meeting in Shenzhen. The regional branch schools in Shenzhen watched the meeting online. There was a subtle division within the Sunmoon company. Meetings with Li Muzi, Song Shanmu’s ex-wife, who oversaw the headquarters in Jinan and some smaller-profit northern and inland branch schools, were held on Tuesdays.

The staff meeting followed a fixed agenda, including singing Sunmoon’s Song collectively and selecting employees to recite Sunmoon’s Service Declaration and The Lamb Kneels to Suckle. The Lamb Kneels to Suckle was one of the features of the Sunmoon culture.

Every employee could recite this fully: “Shanmu understood gratitude from the beginning. He practised his preaching and taught colleagues. As a forty-year-old man with a mother in her twilight years, Shanmu still kneels in front of her to wash her feet. Feeling his mother’s hardships raising him, the CEO tore to express gratitude. With a lamb as my teacher in the past and the CEO as my role model at the moment, we must not forget our debt of gratitude to being Sunmoon’s people…”

The CEO was not just a CEO. He was a role model for career success and a saint of morality. This ceremony made the company look like a family. Every young person who entered the company felt reborn, as they had to take on a new name with the compound surname “Huangjin” [Huangjin means “gold” in Chinese]. Between colleagues, real names and personal information were not allowed to be used. All previous identities and relationships were obscured. Even in internal transfers within the Sunmoon group, the name starting with “Huangjin” must be retaken. Here, employees learned a set of physical and mental norms, as if they had grown up for the second time.

Every grand meeting involved a half-hour section of the CEO’s speech, where Song Shanmu spoke like a philosopher about the “way of being human” and his recent activities. For example, the CEO often mentioned his friendship with Li Tzar Kai. His travels and meetings with some “senior leaders” were turned into videos and PowerPoint slides to show to the employees. The CEO’s world was beyond the reach of most of these young people, who lacked solid academic qualifications and had limited social experience. In an interview, one male employee accurately recited several instructions given by the CEO.

As for the truth of the CEO’s business circle composed of important figures, this was not something these employees could verify. Regarding the friendship with Li Tzar Kai, the official website of Sunmoon only mentioned it in a “reportage” involving a group photo: “On the afternoon of December 7th, Dr Hu Jhih Chiang, a prominent political figure in Taiwan and the mayor of Taichung, gave a speech at the City University of Hong Kong… CEO Mr Song Shanmu, Mr Li Tzar Kai (son of Li Ka-shing, Chairman of PCCW), CEO’s old friend Ms Jiang Su Huei (President of the Taiwan Business Association (HK) Ltd  and Chairman of the board of HKI group), Mr Liu Changle (Chairman of the board of Phoenix Satellite TV), and other social celebrities were invited to attend this event by Dr Hu.”

Regarding this, Southern Metropolis Daily’s reporter asked about the CS Culture Foundation, which regularly organises public forums for Taiwanese political and business circles in Hong Kong. Chen Pei Wun, assistant to the chairman Jiang Su Huei said: “He is just an ordinary participant in our public events. It’s not possible for Mayor Hu to invite him. As for the ‘old friend relationship’ with the chairman (Jiang Su Huei), there is absolutely no such thing!”

Song Shanmu knew exactly what he was doing. Once, he brought “important guests” to visit the headquarters. As they walked into the meeting room, Yu Jin overheard the CEO’s saying. “This is where he brainwashes.”

As an assistant, Yu Jin acted more like a public relations figure for the “multinational corporation.” Song was eager to have this dignified Canadian man with blonde hair and fair skin attend dinners. This boss didn’t drink alcohol and rarely ate meat, reminding Yu Jin of Hitler. “He often mentions Japanese and Nazi-style military management mechanisms,” Yu Jin said.

His military preferences were reflected in Sunmoon’s etiquette. The parade was considered as an example of etiquette. Sunmoon had various etiquette rules. For example, there was the “VIP etiquette,” – under which subordinates had to stand against the wall and bow when a superior or guest approached, making way for them to pass. There was also the “walk etiquette” – under which colleagues, when passing by each other with eye contact, have to lightly press their waist with one hand, slightly bow, and then pass by. In company performances, young male and female employees displayed various unified and standard etiquettes like a military parade. During company meals, they had to adhere to elegant and strict “Chinese dining etiquette.” If they failed to do so, they would result in fines.

“I feel like I’m not a teacher, but more like a waitress,” Luo Yun said. However, with the promise of “being able to transfer to Shanghai,” she worked hard to adapt. Her boyfriend, whom she had been with for three years, was attending university in Shanghai. Her life prospect was to “go to Shanghai.” She had already passed the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters (Intermediate-level Interpretation) and made a pact with her boyfriend that even if only one of them could successfully find a job in Shanghai, they would stick to this plan. This dream of Shanghai led her to submit her resume to Sunmoon’s Shanghai branch seeking to recruit people.

Soon, she started working as a teacher, starting with teaching international phonetics. Despite the lesson fee being only around 5 yuan per hour at the beginning, she enjoyed it. She captured the hearts of her students, and they liked her classes. They never forgot the Japanese and English song she sang during class, Tears’ Tales, even though they didn’t understand the song title.

Sunmoon Basic Law

CCVIP (Shenzhen Sunmoon International Science and Technology Building – Teaching Headquarters) was said to be Song Shanmu’s private property, and his office was meticulously decorated. The main colour was like black coffee, with custom-made leather furnishings. The highest internal rule of the company—the “Sunmoon Basic Law”—also dictated the strict management of this room by the headquarters office staff: the curtains must be fully drawn after 5:30 p.m. In the morning, they should be pulled to cover a quarter of the window; then the windows should be opened for ventilation. Within just two days of being at the headquarters, Luo Yun was fined two hundred yuan for not properly arranging the curtains—but Song Shanmu announced that he would cover the fine himself, expressing his hope that this form of punishment would make Luo Yun realise her “serious dereliction of duty.”

There were numerous reasons for fines, all dictated by the “Sunmoon Basic Law.” Within six months of work, Lan Yu was fined two thousand yuan. According to interviews with Sunmoon employees, there were a total of 280 rules for fines. Just like the name “Sunmoon,” the internal organisation and management of Sunmoon also have a distinctly Japanese flavour. The department was referred to as 省(しょう) [省 means province in Chinese] and their leader was “province governor.”

The department responsible for monitoring discipline was called “Audit Province.” For example, employees were required to turn off their phones during working hours, and members of the Audit Province would conduct random checks. Failure to comply would result in fines. Yu Jin’s negative impression of Song stemmed from seeing cleaners being punished when he first arrived at the company. Several employees described the atmosphere in the company as one of mutual surveillance and pervasive reporting.

This was exactly what Song Shanmu proudly calls the “Sunmoon Method.” The “Sunmoon Method” mentions, “In order to prevent humanised management from going to the other extreme, I insist on implementing the Stove principle in Sunmoon Training Institute.”

The meaning of the “stove principle” is that rules and regulations are like a stove, and the purpose of their existence is to promote the growth and development of the enterprise, much like how a stove exists to provide people with warmth. However, if one violates the regulations, it’s like touching a hot stove and getting burned, and they must “pay the bill” for their mistakes and accept punishment. Despite frequently referencing Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi, the CEO actually adhered to the Legalist governance philosophy.

The company’s working hours system was structured as working 12 hours per day (with only one hour designated for rest and meals), starting either at 9:03 or 10:03 am and ending at either 9:03 or 10:03 pm. Even though employees often worked overtime for one or two hours, there was no overtime pay. The “overtime pay” item on the salary slip was actually a performance-based pay and was unrelated to overtime work. Salary slips sent via email were set to be automatically deleted after being opened. Once open, it cannot be retained.

Body management

CCVIP (Sunmoon International Science and Technology Building –Teaching Headquarters) was markedly different from other branch campuses. It was Song Shanmu’s office and was the “flagship” of the group. Here, every aspect of an employee’s situation—resignation, request for leave, returning late to the dormitory—must be reported directly to Song Shanmu. The majority of employees at Sunmoon Education Group were women, especially in the areas supervised by Song Shanmu. CCVIP was almost like a kingdom of women. Other than two male senior executives and one senior male teacher, the rest of the employees were all female.

Female employees at other branch campuses wore uniforms such as white shirts, ties, and blue jackets. Only at CCVIP, all female employees wore deep V-neck blue uniforms with blue and yellow striped scarves, and no shirts were worn underneath. “Song Shanmu indeed has a talent for design. He designed the uniforms and handbags himself, and he enjoys doing these things,” an insider said. The pretty uniforms and corporate badges on the chest must be purchased by the employees themselves.

An employee who has worked at Sunmoon for several years insisted that Song Shanmu chose Luo Yun because her destiny suggested “bringing fortune to her husband.” According to an insider, the girls chosen by him all had specific facial features. The mysterious aspect of fengshui and fortune-telling was an important part of Sunmoon culture. When Sunmoon’s employees were recruited into the company, they needed to take photos of their faces and hands to be reviewed by the CEO.

According to the principles of the Five Elements, “fire” counters “mountain” and “wood,” so the “basic law” prohibited male employees from smoking and female employees from perming their hair. At Sunmoon, female employees were required to comb their bangs to expose their foreheads, to supposedly attract wealth and prosperity to the company. Due to the clash between jade and silver with “Shanmu,” employees were not allowed to wear jade stones.

As a result, employees’ bodies naturally became constrained by the “Sunmoon Basic Law.” Course consultants who stood for 10 hours a day and course instructors who stood at the podium for 4-6 hours a day were required to wear heels of at least 3 centimetres (wedges were not allowed). At the headquarters, the heel was required to be up to 5 centimetres. The “Basic Law” dictated every detail of employee appearance, including hairstyles, jewellery, and nail decoration. Additionally, only at the headquarters were female employees required to wear black stockings.

Body management extended to the dormitories as well. Almost all of Sunmoon’s employees in Shenzhen live in dormitories. The headquarters was located in Shenzhen Sunmoon International Science and Technology Building. Opposite it, there were two two-bedroom apartments in the Futian Building on Shennan Middle Road, serving as the living area for the female employees of Sunmoon CCVIP. Apartment XX01 had six bunk beds, accommodating 11 girls; the living room served as the staff canteen for CCVIP.

In Apartment XX02, only the dormitory supervisor, Huangjin Jia A. occupied a small room separated by frosted glass. The rest of the space was open and contained exercise equipment such as treadmills and stationary bikes. Each girl was required to complete at least 20 sessions of exercise per month, with each session lasting at least half an hour. Completing these exercises would earn them a bonus of 300 yuan, while the failure resulted in a fine of 200 yuan.

Both Luo Yun and another victim who lived in the Futian Building believe that this rule was aimed at keeping the girls slim. Song required the girls at the headquarters to not be overweight. He once issued a regulation requiring female employees to lose weight, and the dormitory supervisor Jia A. regularly weighed them. Those who failed to meet the target were also fined. In fact, the girls living here generally weighed between forty and forty-five kilos, and very few exceeded fifty kilos. There was a weighing scale in each branch of Sunmoon’s Shenzhen headquarters. Song Shanmu held the keys to the dormitories, and he would know about their exercise habits, bedtime, phone usage, and relationships with boyfriends.

Song Shanmu went to the XX02 apartment to take photos and asked Luo Yun to help a colleague. When only the two of them were in the room, Song Shanmu said to her, “You look pretty good, but why do you have smelly feet!” A few days later, Song called her to his office and gave her a tube of foot fungus medicine, saying that the fungus could infect the entire dormitory and that he had mysophobia. It was a tube of powder the size of a lipstick container, allegedly expensive. Perhaps due to the embarrassing memory, Luo Yun never used it.

The rules regarding etiquette, exercise, dress, and weight were so strict that they made people forget that their bodies have their own will. Complainant Shen Wei described to the reporter that one time after dinner, Song Shanmu, who had never directly interacted with her before, called her to his office and told her to wait by the Mercedes-Benz S500 in the parking lot. She did not even dare to ask where she was going, and she obediently complied.

The space outside the fitness equipment was Song Shanmu’s photography studio. His photography skills were not bad, and all the portraits on the company’s promotional calendars and playing cards were taken by him. As a training company catering to the low-end market, Shanmu’s requirements for employees’ appearance and etiquette far exceeded their education and abilities. On the Sunmoon website, there was a section for “Employees’ Profiles.” There were dozens of photos of female employees in uniforms, who twisted their bodies into an S shape. One netizen commented, “This style could be used for adult videos.”

Yu Jin was responsible for finding foreign teachers for Shanmu and helping him communicate with non-Chinese-speaking foreign teachers. Shanmu claimed himself to have obtained a doctoral degree in business management from the University of Oxford in the UK, but he only knew simple English. Shanmu hoped to recruit as many female foreign teachers as possible, which made Yu Jin feel helpless, “He thinks girls are easy to manage and obedient. But there are so few foreign girls coming to China, and it’s very difficult to find them. Moreover, foreign girls are not as obedient and easy to control.”

Finally, Yu Jin found a Ukrainian girl who tried to teach for two weeks and then left. “She said that Shanmu called her to his office and said he wanted to give her a house and a car because he wanted to try foreign women.”

Behind the propaganda

For the employees who can only learn about the CEO through texts and images, the CEO was a great “Confucian entrepreneur.” In reality, only the employees of CCVIP knew that he often mentioned various versions of the Three Character Classic in his talk. “Someone should be taken out and shot” was also a common phrase. He was sometimes intimidating.

Song understood quite well the importance of propaganda. Compared to similar companies, the website content of Sunmoon Training Institute was quite rich. Each regional branch had its “reporters,” and the propaganda followed a fundamental tone.

But it was difficult to know what kind of people were promoted and handpicked by the CEO and these so-called role models who were all named “Huangjin something,” from the flowery reports. Neither their professional performance, where they graduated from, nor their hometown were included. Even their positions were also only described vaguely. What was only mentioned was their “growing up in the company,” their “gratefulness and loyalty to the company,” and how they were “elegant, mature, generous, and intellectual.” During the off-peak enrolment season in winter, reporters must publish a “Popular registration” article every week to stage scenes and boost business. After the 2010 Spring Festival, the Planning Department in Jinan struck while the iron was hot by planning the “Most Hardcore Fan of CCTV Spring Festival Gala” event. This had a very good publicity effect. In fact, every year during the Spring Festival Gala, he required employees to watch the TV closely, and the person who first discovered him and sent a text message to him would receive a reward of five hundred yuan.

The world portrayed in the reports was perfect and harmonious, in which everyone spiritedly headed towards a bright future in their careers. Dissenters were “energy vampires” asking for troubles on oneself.

After being sexually assaulted by Song Shanmu, Lan Yu was expected to accompany him to a dinner event as planned. Song stayed lively and witty in conversations with local newspaper reporters at the gathering as if nothing had happened. For him, sexual relations seemed to be normalized within the superior-subordinate relationship: he would always encourage the girls after the assault to “do a good job, and you will have a good future.” Feeling physically drained, Lan Yu was just contemplating how to escape.  However, after the dinner, Song looked at her smiley: “You are not to disappear tomorrow morning right? You won’t risk the lives of yourself and your family members.”

“I was so shocked. He could really read my mind.” Lan Yu had recently completed training in Jinan and had only been in Shenzhen for a short time. She resided in a dormitory shared by employees from different branches. She secretly calculated that it would be convenient to escape there. However, that night, Song asked Huangjin C. to arrange for her to Apartment XX01 within the Futian Building. The dormitory supervisor Huangjin Jia A. accompanied her to take her luggage and was reminded to “take much care of” her.

At Sunmoon, the majority of female non-managerial employees were in their early twenties, just having graduated (from the university). 24 or 25 were already senior. About 90 percent of the girls had no boyfriends, some even having never experienced relationships. The “Sunmoon Basic Law” prohibited romantic relationships within the first two years of employment and strictly prohibited romantic relationships between colleagues. Most employees came from rural or urban areas in the north, with rural hukou. It was their first time in a big city and their job and dormitory represented the centre of their world. Following the sexual assault, they had no one to discuss it with.

Lan Yu watched helplessly as another girl, Huangjin F., replayed her own tragedy but she could not intervene. She noticed Huangjin F., who was dressed casually during work hours, waiting outside the CEO’s office, and she immediately sensed something abnormal. Later, she discreetly checked the attendance records at the front desk and noticed F.’s absence at 3 o’clock — just like her last time. The next day, F. never appeared again. She was unable to inquire further. The front desk girl, Jia G., was responsible for managing disciplinary actions for CCVIP employees. Asking too many questions would alert Song. “In the headquarters, keeping quiet is crucial,” said Shen Wei.

Similar to Sunmoon Company, Room XX01 had a carousel-like turnover of occupants.  In 2009, three girls disappeared from XX01. Two of them disappeared after waking up in the morning, leaving their belongings behind – their inauspicious upper bunk beds remained vacant thereafter. The third girl’s disappearance was even more mysterious; she left with dormitory supervisor Jia A. to purchase office supplies. But when Jia A. returned downstairs, she said the girl had something to do and never came back. 

The CEO was not as resilient as people believed. During one abuse, he lamented, “Why do you all want to leave me?” The company’s website reportage and the reality of that room depicted two entirely different worlds.

Governance structure

After the publication of “The Sunmoon Method,” with the endorsement of numerous celebrities, Shanmu had evidently become a “Sunmoon model” with a certain kind of meaning – regardless of how those employees who did not speak in this book feel. Across the country, every Sunmoon classroom had a portrait of Song Shanmu. A male employee from a regional branch of Sunmoon Training once discussed with colleagues, “He just wants to be an emperor.” Indeed, the company seemed to have branches “all over the globe” (in fact, only one small teaching centre was maintained in the UK). The headquarters in Shenzhen also increasingly resembled a small royal court.

Implicitly understood by all, it was known that several key figures at headquarters, certain important regional managers, and some employees had fixed lover relationships with Song Shanmu. Song was also willing to send women with whom he has had relationships to various locations as branch directors. Many of them were indeed capable, some had lived abroad and had borne children for Song. This pattern resembled the management of a dynasty to pacify the frontiers, in which the ties of sex and blood give confidence in stabilising this vast corporate empire. This was not unique to Song Shanmu. After 2000, in the hit Chinese TV series “Kangxi Dynasty,” the contemporary screenwriter made such an “artistic interpretation” of Kangxi’s territorial expansion: on the sunlit grasslands, eunuchs set up curtains, and Kangxi had sex with Mongolian princesses Baori Longmyei. Kangxi thus pacified Mongolia.

In the first few days, Song told Lan Yu that he wanted to nurture her to become a regional director. This was expected, as there was already a female branch director in Shenzhen who only had a middle school education. However, Lan Yu’s indifferent attitude displeased Song greatly. “Since that incident, I haven’t wanted to stay there for long. I have been looking for an opportunity to leave. He told me that my IQ was higher than others, so I didn’t listen to him.”

Song called her into his office. He said, “You are too prickly. That’s how this society works. Whoever has money controls everything.” He said that Sunmoon was a kingdom, and he was the king. Everyone just needed to keep the king happy, then they could have a good life. Song also defended himself, if it were another boss, they would just be playing with us, but he really wants to mentor us. To Lan Yu, this was also partly true – Song was quite caring towards his cohabiting lover Huangjin R. However, an unconfirmed statement from Huangjin had circulated within the company: “Either I work at Sunmoon Training Institute for the rest of my life, or I’ll be killed the day after I leave Sunmoon Training Institute.”

“Although that statement was said in a bit exaggerated way, it does express the feelings of many victims,” said one complainant.

Song reassured Lan Yu repeatedly that he wouldn’t do it again. In the first few months, he did keep his promise. “This was my first job, and I wanted to complete a year without anyone thinking I had any problems,” He also agreed to Shen Wei’s request to return to her hometown to work. After returning, she quickly resigned. If the girls he had violated stayed obediently, there would be a monthly “headquarters subsidy” of five hundred to one thousand yuan deposited into their bank accounts by Huangjin R.

However, Song broke his promise. This time, he spread the leather cushion from the office’s two-seater sofa on the floor and took out a small massager. His office was like a family-planning office, with hidden contraceptives and sex toys. Lan Yu burst into tears, and her colleagues were still working outside. Song was quite resentful, “Weren’t you obedient the first time?” After Lan Yu escaped, she soon resigned decisively. Song didn’t try to keep her this time.

Eggs flying towards a stone wall

For ten years, the cruelty at the Shenzhen headquarters persisted silently until Luo Yun encountered danger.

After the incident, as instructed, Luo Yun cleaned herself and the scene. On the way back, “My mind was in a mess,” Luo Yun said. She listened numbly to Shanmu’s words. “Headquarters subsidy,” “transferred to Shanghai in ten days,” “since his mother is also there, he will often come to see me,” and “he cares for me like a daughter.”

The real “daughter” was the Sunmoon Women’s College, a full-time educational institution owned by the Sunmoon Group in Jinan. After completing the course, students could stay and work at Sunmoon. The selection criteria for the college were as strict as those for flight attendants, and the Sunmoon website features “portrait photos” of students wearing Japanese-style school uniforms. Song once said, “All full-time students are like my own children.” Among the “own children” who graduated, at least three were long-term lovers of Song Shanmu in the Shenzhen headquarters. Huangjin P., who worked in the Sunmoon’s training department in Jinan, offered suggestions on the selection of these “children.”

On the evening of 3 May, Luo Yun numbly followed Song Shanmu’s instructions and returned to the company to sign attendance—failure to do so would result in a fine of 50 yuan. At 10:05 p.m., she signed her name.

Outside the dormitory, upon her return, she finally realised she wanted to cry. Without notifying her parents, she made a phone call to her boyfriend. “I had to tell him because we understand and support each other in our studies and spirits. We share everything, so it’s unfair to keep this from him.”

In their first phone call, both young people didn’t know what to do. But he refused her request to break up: “This isn’t your fault. I won’t break up with you.” Unable to sleep through the night, he called her in the early morning and insisted on calling the police, “If you can’t speak up, I’ll tell your parents.”

“I don’t want to call the police, but then I thought, my photos are still there. I can’t leave, but staying isn’t an option either.” She finally arrived at the nearby police station at 6 a.m.

The police officers at the Nanyuan Police Station took effective measures: they took Luo Yun to retrieve the clothes she had discarded in disgust from the garbage bin and located the apartment where the incident occurred. But when the case was transferred to the Dongxiao Police Station, she encountered an unfriendly male police officer. “He kept questioning me, implying that it was voluntary.”  She completed the record with a heart full of humiliation.

Having assisted the police in their investigation and undergoing interviews again and again, Luo Yun asked the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter: “For girls like us who have just graduated from school, there should be at least hundreds of thousands each year, right? Do you think the Women’s Federation and Youth League can take measures to protect us and prevent such incidents from happening again?” 

Students in Luo Yun’s class discussed dropping out of school while sending messages to her through the reporter: “Don’t cry! We understand the injustice you have suffered. Please stay strong!”

A male employee of Sunmoon called Southern Metropolis Daily to express dissatisfaction with some online criticisms of Luo Yun: “Everyone knows what has been happening all along, but why should the victim be insulted instead? Luo Yun has spoken out and saved many people. I hope public opinions will support her, and her boyfriend will cherish her.”

Among the seven known complainants, two girls revealed to the reporter through intermediaries that they dared not to come out unless the police requested their cooperation in the investigation. Personal details such as parents’ names and hometown addresses were kept in the personnel archives of the Sunmoon Group. It was the concern for their families and the fear of the allegedly indecent photos being posted online that kept the girls silent.

After leaving Sunmoon, Lan Yu found a job relevant to her degree and was living a vibrant life. However, on May 19, she decided to come forward as the second victim and meet with the reporter. “I don’t want to seek revenge on him. I just believe that when something happens, the truth should be revealed. And I’m encouraged by Luo Yun and Li Jing, I want to support them,” she said. “I even want to meet Luo Yun and talk to her because—I’m the only one who understands how she feels.” At this point, she, who had been calm all along, suddenly blushed, and tears welled in her eyes. That evening, she received the news: the Song Shanmu case had been transferred to the Procuratorate by the police.

The panic and confusion within the Sunmoon Group continued to linger. No one expected that the first major crisis of the Sunmoon dynasty would stem from a 22-year-old girl’s attempting the impossible.

(Victim’s names are pseudonyms, and their personal information has been obscured. For Sunmoon’s involved employees, their job titles have also been obscured. Our reporter Ye Biao also contributed to this report.)