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2018-04-12 09:26:38 Commentary

Since the end of February, the Chinese government’s decades-old educational reforms have muscled their way back into mainstream public debate. Known as jianfu, or “burden reduction,” the policies aim to decrease the academic workloads of primary and middle school students. On social media, parents have written open letters to the Ministry of Education pleading for teachers to give their children more homework. Others claim, somewhat sensationally, that the policy’s true motive is to discourage poor people from having children, or that it is destroying the traditional Chinese family unit.

The public outcry ignited two months ago when the Ministry of Education banned all primary and middle schools from engaging in 10 controversial enrollment practices. The new rules prohibit schools from using enrollment tests to evaluate prospective students, taking a child’s extracurricular qualifications as grounds for enrollment, offering fast-track classes for gifted students, and ranking students according to their scores on the zhongkao — the high school entrance exam.

The bans are more a rehash of existing policies than innovations. But they have fueled the ire of parents who condemn education authorities for reducing the number of homework assignments, making tests easier, diminishing the importance of scores in favor of a holistic approach, and making in-school or interschool competitions less, well, competitive — measures ostensibly designed to give students a more relaxed and enjoyable academic experience.

Parents say the policy is moot because universities and rule-bending selective schools still mainly evaluate students based on test scores, pushing parents toward often-expensive private education services that feed off the social anxiety of a nation culturally attuned to the profound influence exam scores have on young people’s life chances. The writer of one of the abovementioned articles — the one who claimed that jianfu’s real motive is to persuade the poor to have fewer kids — contended that “the government used to fulfill the task of educating our children, but they don’t want to shoulder that responsibility anymore, so they’ve thrown it back to the parents.”

Continuing in the same outlandish vein, a writer on the popular news portal Sohu.com added: “The government is downsizing the resources spent on your education to prevent your child from competing fairly with children from rich families.” In a debate on popular microblogging website Weibo, another person postulated that workload reduction intends to discourage children from less well-off households from studying in order to ensure that enough people join the low-skilled workforce.

The aspirational middle class, claim that the ‘jianfu’ movement represents a state-sanctioned betrayal of the responsibility to make education a force for social advancement.

Parents of China’s schoolchildren, especially the aspirational middle class, claim that the jianfu movement represents a state-sanctioned betrayal of — or at least withdrawal from — the responsibility to make education a force for social advancement. Parents themselves must then step into the vacuum, swamping their kids with more extracurricular learning to help them stand out from their peers and eventually gain admission to a good university.

But private education services take a toll on a family’s finances, time, and energy. One mother described how she and her husband have drastically cut down on their expenditures to save money for their child’s extracurricular activities, to the point where even everyday luxuries like a cup of milk tea are off the menu. “A remedial math or English class for three students to one teacher costs at least 1,000 yuan ($160) per student for every two and a half hours, while group seminars cost at least 200 yuan each,” she wrote. “We spend more than 10,000 yuan in remedial class fees every month.”

An additional consequence of the jianfu policy is that it has stripped away many of the extracurricular avenues for students to score higher on the gaokao — China’s grueling college entrance exam. This, in turn, has forced teachers to refocus on the basic gaokao curriculum, a move that only bolsters the unhealthy acceptance of exam-oriented education that jianfu purports to avoid, and shapes the content of the homework assignments that teachers give their students.

Most opponents of the jianfu movement conclude that China’s children are capable of handling extremely heavy workloads and that it would be better to revive the culture of two decades ago — when, they say, the state supported students working day and night.

The jianfu policy was forged a little over 20 years ago amid another heated public debate. One popular saying at the time was: “Test, test, test, it’s what teachers do best; grades, grades, grades, are how students’ lives are made.” Today, another ironic phrase is making the rounds: “The jianfu policy is what’s best; parents can do all the rest.”

In the absence of a social safety net, education remains the key means by which most families hope to enrich a younger generation plagued by skyrocketing housing prices, higher barriers to employment, and a fast-approaching aging crisis.

It is important to look back at China in the mid-’90s to understand the roots of the anti-jianfu movement. At the time, the central government had been running the yearly gaokao for two decades since its reintroduction in 1977 following the Cultural Revolution. By about 1995, parents and students were complaining that exam-oriented education was adversely affecting the well-being of the country’s children.

The same year, the central government decided to abolish two relics of the planned economy: the work assignment system for college graduates and government-sponsored housing allocation. These two measures helped dismantle a far-reaching egalitarian social welfare system colloquially known as the daguofan, or “communal rice pot,” and meant that the vast majority of ordinary Chinese had to rely on their individual merits to secure jobs and housing. As employers gained more freedom to determine their own hiring criteria, academic prowess became a key way to discriminate between workers. In turn, families looked to the college and high school entrance exams as a means of social advancement, even as the state seemed to withdraw from its hands-on approach to educating the next generation.

A few years later, in 2000, a 17-year-old high school student in eastern China’s Zhejiang province murdered his mother under crippling pressure to achieve academic success. The case marked a turning point in the debate on exam-oriented education, and then-President Jiang Zemin gave a speech on the deep-seated academic trends underlying the incident. The speech helped push the idea of reduced workloads into mainstream political discourse.

Since its inception, most people seem to have embraced the ideals of the jianfu movement. But as the jianfu reforms produced their own winners and losers, more and more parents have come to oppose it.

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Education says it will move ahead with workload reduction. On March 21, it published a notice on its official website laying out how it intends to implement guidelines from the State Council, China’s cabinet, on deepening reform of the exam-oriented enrollment system. It also said it would end the system whereby student athletes, winners of the International Science Olympiad and other prestigious science competitions, provincial-level honor students, and those thought to have contributed to the (vaguely defined) public good are eligible for bonus points on the gaokao.

Like many other parents, I support the ideals of the jianfu movement but doubt its effectiveness to date. It is clearly irresponsible for any society to allow its children to grow up overworked and unhappy. At the same time, opposition to the jianfu reforms has diverse and deep-seated social roots. In the absence of a social safety net, education remains the key means by which most families hope to enrich a younger generation plagued by skyrocketing housing prices, higher barriers to employment, and a fast-approaching aging crisis. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that a society conditioned to see the state as its protector now chides its educators for failing to support its young.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Students carry textbooks at the beginning of a new semester at a middle school in Xuancheng, Anhui province, Feb. 25, 2018. VCG)