Faster, higher, stronger: China's kids pushed to breaking point

In China, the term involution (内卷, neijuan) has been used to refer to various forms of inward spiral, regression or stagnation. Applied to education, it is the vicious cycle of kids being primed and plumbed for their potential. Cram-style preschool education, intense competition for places in elite schools, crazy property prices in school districts... the list goes on. If no one steps off the wheel, is there no end in sight?
Elementary school students play on International Children's Day in Hai'an in China's eastern Jiangsu province on 1 June 2021, a day after China announced it would allow couples to have three children. (STR/AFP)
Elementary school students play on International Children's Day in Hai'an in China's eastern Jiangsu province on 1 June 2021, a day after China announced it would allow couples to have three children. (STR/AFP)

(Photos: Yang Danxu, unless otherwise stated)

“If everyone is more capable than them, wouldn’t our children be jobless in the future?”

As 48-year-old financial personnel Zhang Yafen (pseudonym) speaks of education for the next generation, a sense of helplessness pervades her tone. A few days before her interview with Zaobao, Zhang’s daughter, a first-year middle school student, had just taken the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

This is an English test for students from non-English speaking countries, the scores of which are needed for application to universities in Europe and the US. Although there are some years before her daughter goes to university, Zhang feels that taking the TOEFL at this stage serves to provide a gauge of her daughter’s current English proficiency and is a “calling card” into the elite high schools in Beijing.

When her daughter was in primary three, Zhang and her husband deposited nearly 100,000 RMB (about S$20,000) with an English-language training institution in course fees, securing a weekly three-hour one-on-one lesson for their daughter.

Compared to other households, Zhang says she is not a parent who pushes their child particularly hard. However, soon after her daughter was born, she started preparing for the latter’s education. Ten years ago, she and her husband bought a house in a school district with better options, moving from Beijing’s cultural Dongcheng district to Haidian district.

haidian
An aerial view of Haidian district, Beijing, 2012. (Wikimedia)

It is common in Chinese cities to spend a lot of money on houses in school districts. Parents who rack their brains to get their children into elite schools have pushed property prices in school districts sky high. Such behaviour has drawn the attention of China's leaders and become an item on the agenda for the Chinese Communist Party Politburo.

Take Zhang's house for example. Since 2011, prices have jumped from less than 50,000 RMB to nearly 200,000 RMB per square metre. Zhang is happy to have moved quickly. However, after moving to Haidian, the competition is just beginning. "We know some parents who behave crazily… what we have done is nothing," she laments.

In her daughter’s English class, the youngest child is only in primary two. This is a preparatory class for the Cambridge First Certificate in English, or FCE, the equivalent of College English Test Band 4 and Band 6 English standards in Chinese universities.

‘Education involution’ extending beyond academic classes

According to Zhang, such exams are very popular among parents in Beijing. Before the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to secure an exam spot; parents who did not manage to grab a spot in Beijing even brought their children to Tianjin and Baoding to take the exam.

When the Math Olympiad accolades and English certificates become standard issue for every student, parents have to put in even more effort to send their children for holistic talent classes, to ensure that their children stand out from their peers.

The anxiety among Beijing parents is a classic microcosm of China’s intensely competitive education ecosystem in recent years. On Chinese social media, such excessive competition in a sector that leads to internal strife and friction is described as “involution”.

parents
Golden Resources Shopping Mall in Beijing offers all sorts of classes for children. In this photo, parents congregate outside a centre while their children take go classes inside.

If children do not learn well, parents fret that they are not learning; if children do learn well, parents fret that they cannot make it into better schools. Zhang says: “As a parent, I’m not happy to see my child struggle every day. But it cannot be helped; the competition is too great.”

“Education involution” is rapidly extending beyond academic (what China calls “cultural”) classes. When the Math Olympiad accolades and English certificates become standard issue for every student, parents have to put in even more effort to send their children for holistic talent classes, to ensure that their children stand out from their peers.

The sixth floor of Golden Resources Shopping Mall in Beijing is known as the “biggest holistic education centre in Beijing”. Congregated here are all sorts of training centres for children — street dance, go, ballet, coding, English — everything is available.

Every weekend, the corridors are filled with parents toting backpacks and holding their young children, rushing frantically to the next class; grandparents passing water bottles to their grandchildren while they rest in between classes; sleepy-eyed children on little stools muttering calculations while waiting for their go class to begin — apparently, such strategy games help to improve the intellect.

I met Liu Yu, 42, outside a training centre waiting for his six-year-old daughter to get off class. He told me that every Sunday, the whole family spends the entire day here — “ballet in the morning, art class now, and a Lego class later”.

corridor
A man carries a sleepy child in the corridors of a mall with centres offering extra lessons to children.

Increased interest in less popular activities such as horse riding and fencing

Parents who tirelessly pull their children from one class to another in a grand “Operation Brainiac” are called “chicken blood” (鸡血 jixue) parents. The children who grow up in such an amped-up environment are called 鸡娃 (jiwa, literally “chicken/hen” and “baby/child”, or a “chick”).

Children who want to get into elite schools not only need to have top grades, but also need to have some sort of talent. Such competition is especially obvious in elite schools in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Liu says he is not a “chicken blood” parent, but he wants to expose his child to different things and cultivate her interests while she is young. He and his wife spend nearly 100,000 RMB a year on such classes. Besides dance, art, and Lego, every Friday there is an equestrian or horse riding class. And more expensive classes for less popular interests such as horse riding, fencing, and ice hockey are items that middle-class parents want to add to their children’s CV.

China’s exam-oriented education has long been criticised, but after the competition in holistic education intensified, more selection criteria have been added to the mix. Children who want to get into elite schools not only need to have top grades, but also need to have some sort of talent. Such competition is especially obvious in elite schools in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Yang Liu, 18, studied at the prestigious High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China (人大附中, known colloquially as Rendafuzhong, RDFZ) in Beijing during her junior and senior high school years. She says that aside from academic classes, one’s groups, activities, and competitive awards are crucial. “You will find yourself in competition with others in every realm,” she adds.

sports
Children undergo sports training in Beijing, China.

Most students in elite schools are from good backgrounds. Apart from competition in grades and talents, some parents use their social connections to seek internship opportunities for their children in big companies. Yang declares, “It is not enough to compete just in terms of studies.”

“Parents and the entire society are being dragged into this crazy game because this has become the mainstream… Perhaps everyone knows what the problem is, but no one can fight against this common phenomenon and mentality.” - Professor Yu Hai, Sociology Department, Fudan University

Parents complain about ‘theatre effect’ in China’s education industry

Almost every anxious parent pushes the blame to those who “stand up” earlier than them.

A parent, Guo Qian (pseudonym), 43, explains with a sigh, “This is the ‘theatre effect’. If people sitting in the front rows of a theatre stand up, can the people at the back still remain seated?”

Guo’s son started attending Math Olympiad classes when he was in primary three. This was all because of what a "chicken blood" mother said in a parents chat group: “Learn in advance and attend Math Olympiad classes now. Then they can breeze through high school.”

This remark “enlightened” her — if every other child is learning in advance and if she does not do the same, wouldn’t her child be at the bottom of the class by the time he attends high school? She says, “It’s a vicious cycle. Everyone’s learning in advance. If you don’t, you’ll be the odd one out instead.”

In response to this phenomenon, Professor Yu Hai of Fudan University’s Sociology Department told Zaobao: “Parents and the entire society are being dragged into this crazy game because this has become the mainstream… Perhaps everyone knows what the problem is, but no one can fight against this common phenomenon and mentality.”

China tuition
Parents and children at an after-school institution offering IT training.

Why is the “theatre effect” becoming stronger in China’s education industry?

Over the past decade, the Chinese have been gaining greater access to education. Last year, the gross enrolment rate of China's higher education sector hit 54.4%. But due to the devaluation of paper qualifications, the setting in of an elitist mindset, as well as a decline in social mobility, parents are even more determined to nurture high-flying children or to maintain their dominant social status through education.

Lack of ‘deep souls’ in Chinese society

Professor Chen Zhiwu, director of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and former tenured professor at Yale University, told Zaobao that people have been treating examinations as the only way to get ahead in life since the imperial examinations were introduced in ancient China. “It is as if society only has that one route to success,” he said.

Prof Chen added that this was also due to the fundamental lack of "deep souls" in Chinese society. “In a soulless society, jumping on the bandwagon becomes the norm. For example, people are constantly fed with the idea that they have to make it into Tsinghua or Peking University… It takes courage and willpower to make a decision that doesn’t follow the crowd, and only deep souls can do that.”

Clamping down on the capitalism eroding education

Huangzhuang in Haidian is Beijing’s “brainiac” centre. Within a radius of just a few kilometres are gathered Beijing’s most popular elite schools such as RDFZ, the Affiliated High School of Peking University, and Tsinghua University High School. This is also the battleground of “chicks”, where nondescript buildings house countless training centres.

Previously, every weekend, the roads here would be full of bespectacled students with their school bags, weaving hurriedly between various centres. At noon, at the McDonald’s in the southwest corner of the subway station, accompanied by their parents, the children would be going through questions or sprawled on the table napping before their next lesson.

But since March this year, after Beijing stopped in-person extracurricular lessons, the madness of Huangzhuang has stopped for a while.

An empty office of an off-campus training institution in Huangzhuang after offline classes were suspended.
An empty office of an off-campus training institution in Huangzhuang after offline classes were suspended.

In a building opposite RDFZ, a centre that spans several levels is empty. Posters of well-known teachers are put up in the reception area, while a “chicken blood” slogan — white words on a red background — is stuck on the walls of some classrooms: “No fear under pressure.”

Beijing overhauls extracurricular centres

A staff member of a centre, who declined to be named, told me that the centre she works for has shifted all of its lessons online.

People are guessing that the authorities have tightened regulations and suspended classes at off-campus training institutions to discourage leapfrogging and the practice of placing huge deposits with such organisations. In response to when offline classes might resume, this staff replied, “That would depend on the outcome of the rectification process… We may have to wait until summer vacation.”

Aided by massive amounts of capital, China’s off-campus training institutions have grown rapidly in recent years, and authorities are taking notice.

Since March last year, Beijing has been cracking down on after-school institutions. In May, two such organisations, Zybang and Yuanfudao, were respectively slapped with a warning and a fine of 2.5 million RMB by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Market Supervision. In April, four after-school institutions, Genshuixue, Xueersi, New Oriental Online (Koolearn), and Gaosi, were also fined 500,000 RMB each.

On 7 May, Beijing party secretary Cai Qi met with off-campus training institutions such as TAL Education Group, New Oriental, Yuanfudao, Youdao, and Gaotu100. He emphasised that off-campus training must reflect that education is a public good, and that there was a need to tighten the supervision of online education platforms and resolutely prevent the unbridled growth of these platforms.

He also mentioned that Beijing needed to take the lead in implementing the Chinese Communist Party’s education policy and to treat “double reduction” (双减) as an important political task. “Double reduction” refers to reducing the burden of students’ homework and off-campus training during the compulsory education stage.

People outside a mall with an advertisement of an after-school institution plastered on the entrance. 
People outside a mall with an advertisement of an after-school institution plastered on the entrance. 

While most cities have yet to crack down on off-campus training institutions like Beijing has, numerous industry experts told Zaobao that a nationwide crackdown on these institutions is imminent.

... the authorities are clamping down on the booming private tutoring industry in a bid to reduce the cost of living for families, thereby boosting the country’s birth rate.

Lower family living costs to boost birth rate?

In a Reuters report published on 12 May, sources were quoted as saying that the authorities are drafting changes targeting “before- and after-school K-12 tutoring” which could be announced as early as end June. Based on the proposed rules, “on-campus academic tutoring classes will be banned, as will both on- and off-campus tutoring during weekends”.

While Chinese officials have yet to confirm these measures, the hyper-sensitive market has already responded. As soon as the news broke, stock prices of New York-listed Chinese off-campus training institutions such as TAL Education Group and New Oriental plummeted.

The “rectification” of off-campus training institutions was also on the agenda of the 19th meeting of the central committee for deepening overall reform held on 21 May. Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised at the meeting that it was necessary to regulate both online and offline after-school training institutions. The meeting also requested that institutions that did not meet qualifications, were poorly managed, took advantage of their positions to make money, engaged in false publicity, and colluded with schools to earn profit be seriously investigated. It also prohibited the capitalisation of operations at will, disallowing the conscience industry to be turned into a profit-seeking one.

Analysts also pointed out that apart from reducing the stress on students, the authorities are clamping down on the booming private tutoring industry in a bid to reduce the cost of living for families, thereby boosting the country’s birth rate.

People cross a street in Beijing, China, on 1 June 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
People cross a street in Beijing, China, on 1 June 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

China’s population growth is slowing. Based on the latest national population census, the country’s total fertility rate of women of childbearing age has fallen to 1.3 last year. And education expenses account for a large part of the cost of raising children.

In first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, a 45-minute one-to-one offline English lesson taught by a foreign instructor can be charged at a whopping 500 RMB per lesson. Even in second- and third-tier cities, this amount is also between 200 and 300 RMB. Ordinary families in big cities spend up to tens of thousands of dollars on a child’s off-campus training activities every year.

State media warns against exploiting people’s fears

With the strong proliferation of capital-seeking motives in the education industry, exploiting people's fear and anxiety for marketing purposes has caught the attention of officials. Since the start of the year, Chinese public opinion and state media have repeatedly warned against profit-seeking practices in the education industry.

... if left unchecked, capital would inevitably be guided by high returns and unethically cater to the utilitarian demand for the short-term improvement of results. It might even resort to creating mass anxiety to turn education into an “involution game”, and become the sole winner in the end.

In January, a newspaper (《中国纪检监察报》) affiliated with the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission published an article titled “Online Education in the Whirlpool of Capital (资本漩涡下的在线教育)”, questioning the impact of capital on online education.

During China’s Two Sessions (两会, lianghui, annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)), members of the CPPCC also raised their concerns over the role of capital in eroding basic education. Following this, state media Xinhua News Agency published a commentary saying that, if left unchecked, capital would inevitably be guided by high returns and unethically cater to the utilitarian demand for the short-term improvement of results. It might even resort to creating mass anxiety to turn education into an “involution game”, and become the sole winner in the end.

“... As long as the environment is still competitive, who dares to slack off?” - Guo Qian (pseudonym), 43, parent

Children leave a school in Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, 20 April 2021. (David Kirton/Reuters)
Children leave a school in Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, 20 April 2021. (David Kirton/Reuters)

However, the prospect of stopping businesses from distorting Chinese education is not very promising.

As Prof Yu of Fudan University observes, if the desire to be ahead of the pack remains fierce, then education has little part to play in nurturing healthy, all-rounded, and kindhearted people. He says, “In fact, we don’t even have to wait for private capital to commercialise education — isn’t the academic decathlon-like education model based on scores and degrees the most intense market competition in itself?”

To many parents, as long as the social-climbing ladder is narrow and social competition remains intense, the demand for off-campus training will not decrease just because offline classes are suspended and off-campus training institutions are closed all at once.

Parent Guo says plainly, “It doesn’t matter if offline classes are cancelled or if training institutions are closed. In the former situation, classes can shift online. As for the latter, parents will go to great lengths to create another ‘mini institution’ and hire our own teachers… As long as the environment is still competitive, who dares to slack off?”

(Additional reporting by Ren Jiayi)

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