At the end of August, China announced that video game providers could only let minors play online for a single hour, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As expected, the children (mostly boys) howled and their parents hoorayed, but to many people’s surprise, the share price of big gaming companies such as Tencent and NetEase shot up. Weren’t they worried about losing customers? Quite the opposite: finally, they thought, we can drop those little brats who contribute less than 1 per cent of our company’s profit but 99 per cent of the trouble. Stories about children stealing grandma’s retirement money to buy a coveted weapon or precious ‘skin’ pop up on social media far too often; when angry parents sue the games company for a refund, the court always favours the parents. Browse any serious gaming forum, and it’s immediately obvious how much the adult players detest children. A nine-year-old won’t improve your strategy in team combat, but he might drop a bomb on you after the battle, just for fun. Game providers hope that grown-ups will play more and pay more. Plus, it’s wonderful news for the manufacturers of home consoles – PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Switch. Still, it’s surprising to see Tucker Carlson praising the communist iron fist on Fox News.
On 1 July, hundreds of schoolchildren attended the ceremony marking the centenary of the CCP in Tiananmen Square. They all looked fit and very few of them had glasses. Rumour has it that Xi Jinping doesn’t like children with weight problems or poor vision. Video clips of chubby schoolboys who can’t do a single push-up often go viral. Just think about those grandpas performing Olympic standard gymnastics in any Beijing park: what a decline in just two generations! No wonder our leader is worried. Video games and extracurricular classes must be to blame. Too much studying is also blamed for Chinese women’s unwillingness to have babies, which is causing the third child policy to founder.
Extracurricular classes aren’t just an Asian phenomenon, although South Korean and Chinese parents have been pushing the practice to extremes in recent decades (Japanese society used to be equally bad but has adopted a more relaxed attitude towards life in general since economic stagnation in the 1990s). One study claimed that a third of South Korean children ‘occasionally or often have suicidal thoughts’, mainly due to intense academic pressure. A documentary shown on EBS (the state-sponsored Educational Broadcasting Service) in 2016 showed the lengths students were going to in order to succeed. South Korean students believe four hours’ sleep a day will get you into university and five will not. It’s normal to have tuition from 8 a.m. till 9 or 10 p.m. during the holidays, and to go to bed at 2 a.m. all year round. As social mobility gets harder, the competition is getting even tougher. Some Chinese parents are shocked by the South Korean model, but many share the sense of urgency and fear: getting into a good university might well be your child’s only way up. And anyone who has been through this hellish process will find boring tasks and long hours easy to deal with in the future. The controversial BBC documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School (2015) brought five Chinese teachers to teach Year Nine pupils at Bohunt School in Hampshire for a month. The experiment seemed to prove that cramming has some merit: the students performed 10 per cent better than their peers in a final assessment.
Folk wisdom tells us that the earlier you begin the better. But how early? Most parents start to get anxious when they have to choose a kindergarten. The private ones have excellent facilities and friendly teachers – and cost a small fortune. Places at the best public kindergartens are almost entirely reserved for the children of the well-connected. Without money or status, your child will end up in an ordinary kindergarten with other underprivileged kids. Losing at the starting line, we say.
Children start taking extra classes when they’re still at primary school. Chinese (language and literature), maths and English are the cornerstones: they are compulsory subjects in the gaokao, the College Entrance Exam, which students take in their final year of school and is the sole criterion for university admission (you can do another language, but hardly anyone does). The Olympic Mathematics Class is popular with primary school pupils who show an early interest in the sciences. In a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, one-to-one maths tutoring for young children can cost 500 RMB per hour (the average wage in big cities is around 50 RMB per hour). As well as academic tutoring, singing, dancing, piano, violin, swimming and badminton classes are also hugely popular. A private piano lesson taught by a conservatoire professor can cost 2500 RMB per hour. Middle-class parents often joke (not without bitterness) that their child is shredding money before their eyes.
The biggest decision for most pushy parents is what sort of secondary school their child should attend. If they plan to send their child to a university in the West, they have to enrol them in a school that follows the IB, AP or A-level track. This means prestigious Chinese universities are no longer an option. (This is why so many Chinese parents still sent their children to college in Covid-rampant countries during the pandemic.) Parents who hate cramming and want their child to see the world are more open to international schooling – the biggest money-shredder of all. Tuition fees alone can drain half the household income, and that’s before summer camps, travel expenses, fancy birthday parties etc. I recently met a twenty-something from a middle-class family who had hated the Chinese school system so much she cut her wrists. Her parents panicked and transferred her to an international school. Her mother even quit her job and learned how to play video games so that they could relax together. She went to university abroad and then returned to Beijing. She is a typical Gen Zer: can’t stick a job for more than a year (‘too boring, salary no good’) and has absolutely no desire for a family (‘taking care of myself is hard enough’). Women who do want a family have to prepare long before the wedding. In big cities, the downpayment on a decent apartment would empty six bank accounts (the couple plus all four parents). Occasionally viral clips circulate of random street interviews. The interviewer asks a passerby: ‘You’re about to divorce. Do you choose the house or the children?’ Most men choose the house because houses are too expensive to buy again. You can always find another wife and have another child if you have the house. Most women choose the children.
For decades the housing market provided most of the finance for local government – through the sale of land to corporate developers on long leases – and for most urban families their most valuable asset is their home. The bubble can’t burst, but it can’t grow bigger either. The wealth gap is bigger among Gen Zers than any other group: young people whose parents pay for everything are quite patriotic and optimistic; working-class youth ‘lie flat’, feeling hopeless. ‘Nine nine six culture’ (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) at a big corporation won’t cover the mortgage, so why bother? The government has realised that this passivity might lead to social instability and in August announced ‘the third distribution’, a policy that encourages the super rich and high-income firms to share out their wealth voluntarily. But everyone knows that the ‘voluntary’ part might not be so voluntary, and the big tech companies are responding swiftly. Last year the regulators called off Ant Group’s IPO (set to be the largest ever anywhere in the world) and issued a series of new rules targeting Ant’s core business – electronic payments via Alipay and a mutual fund into which a third of the population has invested – plus a record 18.2 billion RMB fine. Other fat sheep watched what happened and realised that there was no escape.
It’s true that when central government sends out guidelines, local enforcement can be swift and brutal. After advice was issued on ‘further reducing the burden of homework and off-campus training of students in compulsory education’, videos were released of a bunch of Red Guard style enforcers in Anhui Province kicking open a classroom door and grabbing the teacher by the neck. Many older people felt worried: perhaps, given the opportunity, the Cultural Revolution was going to make a comeback. Schoolteachers in Shanghai were made to sign a pledge that they would not give private lessons. Wealthy parents began to seek out teachers who were willing to pay ‘home visits’ in secret. The tutoring industry was shattered overnight, and those companies that haven’t been bankrupted are remodelling: tutoring parents instead of children.
The government also sent messages through unofficial channels about the possibility of English being dropped as a core exam subject. This sort of survey happens from time to time, and if the proposal isn’t popular it will be denied as just a rumour. But having it put to you repeatedly accustoms you to the idea that one day it might happen. China is turning inwards. English will count for less and less while PE is gaining momentum.
Some journalists have claimed that China aspires to the German model of vocational education, the better to support its industrial plans. But this would require a fundamental cultural shift. For more than two thousand years, Chinese society has valued intellectual and literary pursuits over the technical and manual activities associated with peasants, craftsmen and merchants. As Mencius said, ‘those who work with their brains rule and those who work with their brawn are ruled.’ Blue collar workers have seen their salaries increase quickly in recent years, but there is a long way to go before their social status will equal that of a doctor or professor. Western liberal arts education became integrated into the Chinese higher education system in the early 20th century. The problem as Xi sees it is that the universities produced too many liberals and humanists. Egypt is the worst case scenario: an inflated higher education system with too many humanities graduates leading to endless protests and revolutions. Plenty of talkers, no doers. In April, a report by the People’s Bank of China stated that East Asian countries were falling into the ‘middle-income trap’ because of the preponderance of liberal arts students. It’s clear that the education system is being steered towards utilitarianism: more students will be diverted to vocational training, and higher education will concentrate on science and technology. My humanist friends take solace in the fact that we are not at war: the Japanese Kamikaze Death Squad sent ‘useless’ arts students on suicide missions in the Second World War.
While many Western countries have reopened after vaccinating the majority of citizens, China is still pursuing a zero-Covid policy. This makes sense when a new variant is threatening to breach the immune barrier, but the main concern of Chinese leaders is political. Next year is the Twentieth National Congress of the CCP. After the celebrated doctor Zhang Wenhong, the Chinese equivalent of Dr Fauci, said that China could open its borders once vaccinations had reached a certain level, he was subjected to a massive smear campaign (allegations that he plagiarised his doctoral thesis and so on). The message is clear: do your job but don’t voice your opinions.
Before the Moon Festival in mid September, three Chinese astronauts returned from the Tiangong Space Station. Netizens joke about how surprised they must have been to discover, after three months in space, that the tutoring industry had gone, children didn’t have to do homework any more, property prices were frozen and the Taliban was back in power.