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Education in China: The Great Equalizer

Oct 19 , 2017
  • Tianyu Fu

    Graduate Student, International Relations at New York University

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The importance of education in the past

Education has long been the most important method for the Chinese lower class to achieve success and high social status. For centuries, Chinese society was divided into four major social categories: literati (shi士),farmer (nong农), worker (gong工), and merchant (shang商). Among the four strata, the literati enjoyed the highest social prestige. On a state-level, they dominated the administrative apparatus of imperial China. On a local-level, they were responsible for arranging family and social events, and ensuring the continuation of Chinese culture, arts, and history.

To become part of the literati class, one had to pass the imperial examination. It was a system designed to select officials in China, which can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (8th Century). Besides its function of supplying the government with qualified officials, it worked as a means for commoners to progress socially, through education.

It created a strong social norm in China. Education was considered not only the vital means to change one’s social status, but also a source of social prestige. In fact, a similar emphasis on education is widely shared by East Asian cultures which were heavily influenced by imperial China in the past.

Education and the modern China

The importance of education in China was further bolstered in modern times. China’s humiliating history during the 19th and early 20th century was considered the consequence of backwardness by local elites. Since the 19th century, the elites have launched waves of attempts to reform the education system in China. In today’s China, the old imperial examination has been reformed into the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (gaokao高考) There is another separate examination system for the selection of government officials. This examination is considered a life-changing event in China, because it is the only means for students from non-privileged backgrounds to receive higher education.

With the “open-door” policy, adopted in the late 1970s, the booming Chinese economy cried out for well-educated labor. The traditional norm connecting education with the opportunity to become a government official transformed into the norm which connects education with good employment. One thing remains unchanged: education is a life-changer and a source of social prestige.

It is undeniable that the modern-day China offers more opportunities for commoners to seek greater social and economic status than in the past. However, the increase in opportunity also entails an increase in uncertainty. The young middle-class in China benefited the most through good education. Naturally, they feel the urge to preserve, even improve, the social status of their family through the younger generation’s education.

A race for better social prestige

A common idiom in China nowadays is “do not let your child fall behind at the starting line." Parents from the young middle-class are anxious, sometimes even paranoid, about their child not doing as well as the others. In some extreme cases, parents pre-design the "education path" from kindergarten to university for their child, even before they plan to have a baby.

The consequence of such anxiety is toxic at various levels. Children face enormous pressure to perform well and compete with others from an early age. Parents are anxiously seeking different means to increase their child’s chance to enter the "dream school." Its impact spills over into other domains as well. The real-estate price in some school districts in major cities has rocketed because parents have rushed to buy an apartment for the household registration (Hukou 户口). Extracurricular classes and schools have become a booming industry as parents fill their child's schedule even on weekends. Recently, international schools, which provide primary or secondary education close to Britain or the U.S.’s system, have become increasingly popular as more and more parents plan to send their child to study abroad before going into higher education.

Consequently, the cost to raise a child is increasing rapidly. Investment in real-estate in good school districts is the ticket to entrance into high-quality public schools. A normal apartment in a good school district in Shanghai can cost at least 40,000 RMB per square meter, and the total could easily cost millions. Sending a child to an international school or to study abroad requires a decent financial capability on the part of the parents, in order to pay the expensive tuition fees. The tuition fee for the YK Pao School in Shanghai ranges from 78,000 RMB to over 100,000 RMB per year. Another private international school in Shanghai, Nord Anglia Chinese International School, costs 145,000 – 200,000 RMB per school year. Studying abroad costs much more. Sending a child to a normal public school requires parents to invest in extracurricular classes to ensure their child remains competitive, and the costs for those classes are substantial. For young Chinese parents from the middle-class, education costs occupy a significant portion of the total cost to raise a child.

One or two children?

In social science, no issue exists in a vacuum: they are all inter-connected. Rapidly increasing educational costs are closely tied to another severe challenge: the demographic structure of China. The one-child policy created a family structure of 4-2-1: four grandparents, a couple, and a single child. It has led to a low fertility rate in China. Although the exact number of the total fertility rate (TFR) in China is disputable, it is widely agreed that it is well below the threshold of the sustainable rate of 2.1. Concurrently, the population is steadily ageing. In 2015, those aged above 65 constitute 10.5 percent of the Chinese population. The Chinese government abolished the one-child policy and replaced it with the two-child policy in 2016, as a major move to address this looming demographic crisis.

However, high education costs are curbing the willingness of young couples to raise a second child. Apart from other concerns, such as the time and effort required to raise a second child, or the sacrifices women often make to their careers, the burden of education costs makes a second child economically inviable for most middle-class families. Without practical means to ease the burden, such as subsidies, tax reforms, better social welfare, or fairer education resource-sharing, it is unlikely that the demographic structure in China will change significantly in the long-term. Bringing a new life into the world is more than just a nine-month pregnancy. It is a decades-long commitment to raising a child properly, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, it is crucial in Chinese culture to pass on a family’s social and economic prestige to younger generations, and to ensure that younger generations can maintain, or improve, the family’s social status. Therefore, a decent education is not only the ticket to join the club of the middle-class, but also the insurance to remain there.

Education has been, and will continuously be, one of the major life-changers in China. Parents from the young middle-class are eager to ensure that their offspring benefit from education, as they did. A failure to provide children with adequate education could cause younger generations to slip down on the ladder of social status. For three decades, having more than one child was blocked by the one-child policy for most Chinese couples. Abolishing the one-child policy only opens up the path, while more effective and creative reforms on social welfare, education, and social fairness are necessary to make that path less treacherous to take.

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