by Irina Jiang
Image: yu wei / Unsplash
Chinese children, born into the most populous country in the world, face tremendous pressure since birth, as do their parents. Every choice made by parents is perceived to directly affect their child’s future career and social status. Some parents spend much of their income on kindergarten education for their child to have access to the same resources as children from wealthy families. A tutoring institution’s marketing slogan recently went viral on TikTok for stating, “If we do not tutor your children, we will tutor their competitors”. It is concerning how much stress this simple slogan induces among its target customers. Though many parents understand the unhealthy nature of the Chinese education system, there is not much they can do: heavy competition seems inevitable in the struggle for limited opportunities within China’s huge population. Under the cutthroat environment that has remained for decades, the new policies intending to relieve the students from peer and familial pressure induce controversies. The new policies demand that all private tutoring firms become non-profit, all educational institutions abandon core-curriculum education solely aimed at passing exams, and schools limit workload for students during the nine-years of compulsory education (elementary school and middle school). The controversies are intuitive: are these policies enough to alter the education environment that lasted for decades?
How effective are they?
The competitiveness of the Chinese education system is primarily due to the country’s large population and limited higher education and career opportunities. The entire system is hinged on Gaokao, a college entrance examination. The high school entrance rate is roughly fifty percent nationwide, and the remaining middle school graduates either attend training school or start working, with little chance of a high-income job or further education. The same competition begins all over again for those “lucky” high school graduates as university entrance rates are, again, only fifty percent or lower. Post-college, elite companies almost always look for graduates from the top Chinese universities, leaving the rest who “lost” this competition little chance for such opportunities. Therefore, the root of peer pressure among Chinese students lies in the limitations of educational opportunities and the inflexible requirements that evaluate a candidate entirely on their exam results. Though banning for-profit tutoring services would temporarily mitigate youth stress levels, students will find alternative channels to extra-academic resources if the demand for a promising future continues to depend entirely on standardized testing.
Impacts on the economy
Another drawback of these new policies is slowing down the economy. Given its high demands, private tutoring was once a promising industry. The policies threaten this $120 billion dollar industry, giving it a fatal blow after a decrease in demand during the pandemic. Complaints arose from multiple tutoring companies. The share price of New Oriental, one of the biggest English tutoring companies in China, plunged from a high of $19.68 on the NYSE in February to a low of $2.18. Some smaller firms have declared bankruptcy as they see no future for their work under the government bans, leaving their employees unemployed and unpaid.
So what is this policy really about?
Despite the unsolved root cause of peer pressure and the huge impact on the economy, these new education policies have undeniable benefits. In fact, their primary intentions might not be stress-relief from a demographic developer’s perspective. Instead, these policies may be put in place to lower the cost of education (at least for a short amount of time), and therefore prompt a higher birth rate, given that the staggering cost of education and tremendous peer pressure are the top factors that discourage an increase in the birth rate. Moreover, these policies are specifically incentivizing for the upper-middle class demographic as these families, who send their children to private tutors, feel its high cost the most while the majority of the Chinese demographic, who live in rural or suburban areas, are hardly the target population of the policies. This objective makes more sense when being put into the context of the recent release of the “third-child policy” which legalizes families with three children, who would have to pay a fine before the launch of the policy. Using the need of stress-relief for children as a prop for a policy about bringing a higher birth rate is clever, for China is indeed in dire need of a younger population. The policy does not only lower educational costs but also creates the impression of a sympathetic government working towards a healthier educational environment.
Impact on children’s mental health
Though the policies may not improve China’s education environment directly, the fact that they are put forth by the government shows its awareness of the vicious competition among youth. As the government is deemed the highest authority in China, its intention to promote children’s mental health above their exam scores is a symbolic message to all parents, teachers, and education institutions to be aware of students’ well-being. This leadership might genuinely help children when their health has long been neglected.
In conclusion, though the new policies may not immediately rescue students from competing with millions of peers and may have economic ramifications, they are potentially effective in boosting birth rates and they work as an authoritative check to not over-stress students. In the long run, though the true intentions of these policies are not made explicit, they promise to bring about some positive changes.