One factor that keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power is something that most foreigners don't imagine: it runs the country well enough to keep the people pretty satisfied. It doesn't rely just on brainwashing and political control.
Getting results sometimes comes from a willingness to trample on freedom where governments elsewhere would fear to tread. People in China are used to intrusive government and don't object as much as we would to being told what they can't do.
Largely shutting down the huge private-tutoring industry, a move announced last Saturday, is an example of that. Basically, the government is trying to stop Chinese families from wasting money in competing with each other to get children ahead in the jobs queue. It also hopes the birth rate might rise as a result.
The main measure bans for-profit tutoring in core subjects of the official curriculum, such as mathematics and English. Supply of the service will dry up.
Kids are surprisingly absent from Chinese streets, because they spend so much time learning. They spend long hours in daytime classes, then, very commonly, they spend more hours after school at tutoring centres, or they fire up their computers at home for online sessions.
Chinese school holidays are short, and many parents fill them by sending their kids to yet more privately run classes.
They do this for good reasons and bad.
There's a deep reverence for education in Chinese culture, and that extends to honouring teachers. When I lived in China, I often encountered rich people who wanted their children not to go into the family business to make another motza, but to become university teachers.
Also, typical Chinese parents dote on their children more than Australian mums and dads do, thinking endlessly about how their kids can succeed in adulthood - which leads naturally to putting even more emphasis on education. [As everywhere, grandparents are more indulgent; in China they can be a menace by trying to make kids eat too much.]
Then there's the famous set of exams at the end of high school, the gaokao. In a few critical days at age 17 or 18, an adolescent's exam performance determines the further education available to them, and therefore degrees, diplomas and other certificates.
These can have lifelong influence over job opportunities and salary, because so many managers, not being good at real management, take a box-ticking approach to hiring and promotions. They'll prefer the holder of a bachelor's degree over someone with more demonstrated skill but lesser formal qualifications.
It's no wonder, then, that some of those rich families I mentioned made their motzas in businesses that provided private education of children. Among such businesses, the most common are those that drill kids in coming up with the right answers, or suitable formulaic essays, for getting through school tests.
Demand is so high that any Chinese person with modest English can get a job teaching the language.
One friend in Beijing about 10 years ago, aged 30, taught English for around $40,000 a year, an outstanding salary in the city in those days. The work bored him senseless, but he couldn't think of a way of changing his career: nothing else would pay so well.
Another friend who taught English to children had pretty ordinary language skills but a charming manner that delighted the mothers. I'm not sure whether the kids learned much, but demand for his classes was brisk. He also had trouble in letting go of the work.
On the buyer's side of the transaction, one recent friend had a modest income - about $17,000 a year, I think - and a husband crippled by stroke. But she still spent heavily on tutoring for her only child, a teenaged boy.
English had to be part of the tutoring, but she spoke not a word of it. So she once brought the boy to my home for me to tell her whether she was getting results. "His English is better than what I usually hear on Australian television and radio," I told her.
MORE AGE OF THE DRAGON:
But the more one family spends to get a child ahead, the more another family must spend to do the same. There's wide public awareness of this arms race in education, so my guess is that the reforms will be well received.
I wouldn't advocate anything like that in Australia, but we do have a milder version of the same arms race here, as more and more young people study at university instead of getting practical work qualifications. And more and more of the clever ones, noting the rising competition, go on to study for master's degrees of doubtful utility instead of starting their careers.
A friend likens this to people standing on stools at music concerts so they can see the bands: as more people turn up with stools, more people need them so their views aren't blocked. Then some bring higher stools.
In China, the government seems to think education costs are driving down the birthrate, which was down to 1.3 children per woman in 2020. "Too many people" is a common complaint in China - whether one is trying to buy tickets to something or find a quiet spot in a park - but the CCP does not want the population to fall too fast.
Whether suppressing private tutoring will make much difference is doubtful, since population growth anywhere falls pretty consistently with urbanisation and women getting an education and developing careers. China is already far along that road.
Also, the urge to get kids to the front of the line won't disappear in China. A black market in home tutoring will surely develop.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.