China’s Latest School Reform Law Puts the Onus on Parents to Reduce Student Burnout

China’s education reform drive is now targeting parents. A new law passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee will hold parents legally responsible for reducing their children’s homework and tutoring burdens. They must also prevent video game addiction, a concern the Chinese government attempted to address earlier this year by limiting minors’ video game time to three specified weekend hours. At Vice News, Viola Zhou reported on the attempt by the National People’s Congress to engineer better students by mandating better parenting:

“There are many reasons the youth display bad behaviors, and insufficient or inappropriate family education is a key cause,” Zang Tiewei, a spokesman for the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliamentary body, was quoted as saying by the Beijing News.

[…] Parents will be required to manage minors’ study, rest, and entertainment time in a reasonable way, he said, adding that the new law would help ease parents’ anxiety in bringing up their kids and equip them with “scientific” family education methods. The proposed law would also prevent violent abuse of children as an incorrect way of family education, Zang said.

[…] The draft legislation says family education should promote traditional Chinese culture and the party’s revolutionary culture. Parents should tell minors to love the party, respect the elderly, and have a frugal lifestyle, in a way that “combines strictness and tenderness,” according to the draft. [Source]

In August, the central government issued new regulations severely curtailing the tutoring industry. The regulations have been stunningly effective at eliminating unlicensed training centers in cities such as Beijing, where 98% of unlicensed educational centers have been closed. (Some reports suggest that the decline in training centers has been accompanied by a rise in live-in tutors masquerading as nannies or other family helpers.) Licensed companies have been impacted as well: New Oriental, once China’s premier extracurricular education company, announced in October that it will close Koolearn, a tutoring service for students from kindergarten to ninth grade. The company also announced that it will likely lay off 40,000 tutors. The crackdown has contributed to a tighter labor market for China’s nine million 2021 college graduates graduates, an increase of one million students since 2017.

Efforts to lesson student burdens have not extended to ideological education. Xi Jinping thought is now standard reading across all Chinese grade levels. In Shanghai elementary schools, it has even usurped the place of English examinations. The Economist’s “Chaguan” opinion column delved into the purpose of Xi Jinping thought in schools:

At first glance these textbooks for small children, filled with Mr Xi’s quotes about caring for the environment, and with songs such as “I Love You, China”, (sample lyrics: “I love your boundless forest, I love your towering mountains”) may not seem to settle hard questions about the country’s ruling philosophy. Arguably, though, Chinese youngsters are getting something close to the true essence of Xi Jinping Thought. The overall aim of this reform, the textbook committee explains, is for the school and university curriculum to “comprehensively introduce” Mr Xi’s views on economics, politics, the rule of law, science and technology, culture, education, ethnic policies, religion, national defence, ecological civilisation, party-building and diplomacy, among other subjects. Put more concisely, Mr Xi is to be seen as the undisputed authority on everything. [Source]

The reforms are also targeted at the Party-diagnosed “masculinity crisis” in China. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education encouraged schools to hire male gym teachers to prevent the “feminization” of boys—the campaign has dovetailed with a similar push in the entertainment industry to ban “sissy boys” from popular media. Male students celebrate “Girls’ Day,” an unofficial holiday that has, in some places, devolved into an excuse for male students to post lusty couplets about their female classmates around campus. Despite the stultifying atmosphere, women score higher in language and math than men—and have more leadership experience to boot. Yet women’s academic excellence is not recognized in China’s higher education admissions system. At The New York Times, Joy Dong detailed the systematic sexism that plagues Chinese women seeking a spot at China’s premier universities:

But her chances were even lower. When the [prestigious police academy graduate program she applied to] released admissions results earlier this year, just five out of 140 students who had tested into the program — less than 4 percent — were female, even though more than 1,000 women had applied. And the lowest-scoring woman to get in did 40 points better than the lowest-scoring male applicant who was admitted, according to the school’s admission data.

[…] Women who applied to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering in June scored 127 points higher than the lowest-scoring male counterparts on the gaokao, the national examination that is the most important criteria for admissions to Chinese universities, according to data from a provincial education department.

[…] An informal survey of China’s 116 top universities, published by a group of feminist activists in February, found that 86 academic majors at 18 universities had gender-based admissions requirements. [Source]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is an epidemic of burnout among China’s youth. At work they “touch fish” (a euphemism for slacking off) to escape the monotony of the 12-hour workdays once common, albeit now less so, at China’s largest corporations. To escape, many have chosen to take a step away from the rat race and simply “lie down.” China’s government has taken notice—and it is concerned. Leaked censorship directives reveal that in June, the government mandated that products referencing “lying down” and “involution” be removed from shopping websites. In a major speech recently published in the Party’s theoretical journal Qiushi, and translated here by China Neican’s Adam Ni, Xi Jinping said, “We must prevent social stratification, open up channels for upward mobility, create opportunities for more people to become rich, form a development environment with participation from everyone, and avoid [the phenomena] of ‘involution’ and ‘lying flat’.”

Despite government talk about upward mobility, many young people have begun to question whether hard work and meritocratic ideals are enough to get ahead in a system so plagued by inequality. At Foreign Policy, Helen Gao wrote about Chinese youths’ disillusionment with meritocracy:

Their faith in meritocracy manifested in the massive increase in higher education enrollment, which jumped from 4.13 million to 26.25 million between 1999 and 2015. Guided by the government’s ambitious development plans, young Chinese who took the route of higher education gave up the freedom and agency they might have had as migrant workers and devoted themselves to learning the skills that they believed would give them an edge in the new economy. This was still a minority of people: While the undergraduate enrollment rate for high school graduates is much higher nowadays, at over 50 percent, the majority of those who drop out do so long before graduating high school, or even sometimes middle school. But they were also a prominent and celebrated group.

[…] Young Chinese were not wrong to believe that education has the potential to open doors to a better life. What they did not foresee is that the sudden surge of college graduates led to a glut that deflated the overall value of a college degree, while the government’s preferential treatment of universities widened the difference in quality of the education they offer. As a result, those who do not reach the top of the education ladder are unable to reap the benefit of higher education.

According to an analysis of Chinese higher education based on Chinese scholarly literature published in January, more than 70 percent of China’s higher education enrollment consists of students who are the first in their families to attend university. Yet 90 percent of those students cluster in local universities whose revenues are a fraction of national universities championed by the state. Most of them ended up joining the ranks of low-income graduates who settle for a subsistence-level life in cities. [Source]

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