Why China’s tutoring ban is one step towards ‘common prosperity’
- China is not alone in fighting the inequities in education that today afflict the US, Britain and societies all across Asia
- Xi Jinping is right to bring tutoring companies back to earth, but many more measures are needed to make the education system fair to the majority
It was not just inevitable. It was a good thing.
I have a sneaking suspicion that his decimation of the private tutoring sector will do little to resolve the fundamental challenges facing China’s education sector, which has become a battlefield where parents are willing to spend every last penny in the hope of giving their kids a leg up to a good university and a good job.
As you explore the problems facing China’s education system – and the traumatic impact of the global pandemic on normal schooling – the overriding discovery is how similar they are to problems in education systems worldwide. Whether you are in the United States, Britain, South Korea or Japan – or here in Hong Kong – the story is one of existential angst: parents using whatever resources they have to game the system in favour of their children, with negligible success.
For those who think I am exaggerating, UK research says that half of all five- to seven-year-olds play video games, and that the average plays for two to three hours a day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a medical condition.
Note also the Unicef reports, “An Unfair Start” (2018) and “Addressing the Learning Crisis” (2020), which trace how unevenly education resources are distributed across segments of society in virtually all of the economies studied, and how privilege begets next-generation privilege whether you are in the US, Hong Kong, Britain or China.
Without humour or irony, Unicef reminds us of Sustainable Development Goal number 4: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.” It then reminds us that just about every economy – rich or poor – suffers massive education inequality, with an estimated 600 million youngsters worldwide not reaching minimum proficiency in reading or numeracy.
These education problems – and the inequalities they exacerbate – are an embarrassment to governments worldwide, but they resound particularly uncomfortably in China, where the Communist Party’s 1949 victory was underpinned by promises to China’s ordinary people that incomes would over time be distributed equally, financial hardship and stress mitigated, and quality social, health and welfare services – and education – be available to everyone.
Undoubtedly absent from their midst will be the private tutoring barons that have in the past month seen their fortunes pared and prospects ruined. But if some opt to continue to offer their services as non-profit organisations, then it might be possible to lighten some of the financial and emotional stresses currently borne by millions of middle-class Chinese families.
Many other measures will be needed to make China’s education system fair for the majority, but this step towards “common prosperity” will be significant and welcome.
As Xi noted at the 18th party congress back in 2012, people aspired to “better education, more stable jobs, higher incomes, more reliable social security and higher standard health care, more comfortable living conditions and a cleaner environment”. Common prosperity can only come one step at a time.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view