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2021-08-27 08:16:46

Confident her child would one day be competing for a spot at Beijing’s best schools, He Jingjing knew to start preparing early. When her daughter turned three, she enrolled her at an English-language training center and in an online math course. Two years later, her daughter’s list of tutoring classes had grown to a dozen subjects, including violin and fencing.

In the capital’s Haidian District, infamous for its social pressure to make sure children get good grades, a kindergartener with such a busy schedule is barely noteworthy. “Most students in Haidian are attending extracurricular classes of one kind or another,” He tells Sixth Tone. “It’s impossible for them to completely rely on what’s taught in schools.”

Collectively, Chinese parents spent over 619 billion yuan ($95.6 billion) on after-school tutoring in 2019 according to Macquarie Research, which in May projected that figure would double by 2023.

You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a SupChina-produced podcast sharing the best writing on China.

But instead, a set of new government policies announced this summer has turned both the industry and the lives of parents like He upside down. Called shuangjian, or “double reduction,” the policy package aims to decrease the amount of time children in grades one through nine spend on homework and extracurricular classes, and follows other recent efforts to lighten Chinese couples’ childcare burdens and boost the country’s ebbing birth rate.

So far, however, many parents tell Sixth Tone the reforms have brought them nothing but anxiety. As their children’s schedules are more exhausting than ever, parents themselves are in a frenzied free-for-all to secure spots at a shrinking number of extra-curricular classes. To many, actually reducing their child’s after-school activities is not an option.

Megacities Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou have been designated as the first cities to pilot the shuangjian reforms. Their ultimate goal is to convince parents their children can do with fewer classes in subjects they’re already taught at school. But in interviews with nearly 30 families in Shanghai and Beijing, Sixth Tone found the vast majority (92%) vowed to continue seeking out extra courses for their children. Three out of four said that the policies, instead of making it easier to raise children, have only made their lives more stressful.

The empty classroom of a closed extracurricular training center in Beijing, June 2021. People Visual

The empty classroom of a closed extracurricular training center in Beijing, June 2021. People Visual

Uncertainty

The shuangjian policies mandate that tutoring services for subjects also taught at school can’t be organized during weekends, holidays, or after 9:00 p.m. on work days; tutoring companies can’t use foreign teaching materials or overseas-based teachers, or provide online classes to children below the age of six; and tutoring companies may no longer be listed on the stock market and have to restructure as non-profit organizations. No new such schools will be allowed to register.

They were approved within the government in late May, and several education companies started to cut jobs around that time, suggesting some insiders knew what was coming. Gaotu Group, a U.S.-listed online education company, reportedly began laying off 30% of its employees that month. Several local governments also seemingly jumped the gun, announcing suspensions of classes for the summer vacation before backtracking.

Still, when shuangjian was publicly announced on July 24, few people took it seriously. Years ago, a similar attempt at giving school-age children more free time, called jianfu or “burden reduction,” reduced their class hours and homework duties but eventually proved toothless, as children simply ended up spending more time in after-school tutoring instead.

Soon enough, however, the announced policies began to bite. He’s daughter’s online math class, provided by tech giant Bytedance, abruptly stopped running. Citing “business adjustments,” the company announced earlier this month it would significantly downsize its education operations and lay off staff.

A week later, Best Learning, the training center where He’s daughter attended English lessons, called and said they would no longer be able to provide such services. “My daughter has spent the past three years learning English from this organization,” she says. “Now it’s shut overnight.” With all similar schools shut across the city, He doesn’t quite know how to continue her daughter’s English training. “I tried to find a replacement for Best Learning, but I got nothing,” she says.

Even before the latest reforms, Beijing parents would jump through hoops to secure spots for classes by reputable teachers, a situation He expects will only get worse: “Teaching resources will become even more scarce in Beijing with the shutdown of many training schools.” But one way or another, she plans for her daughter to continue learning English outside of school. She knows children who fell behind their peers, and doesn’t want that to happen to her daughter.

An English major in university, He says she’s now considering teaching her daughter herself. But she’s not sure yet how to combine that with her job, which usually ends after 7 p.m. “I think I might be driven to depression — there’s so much to deal with at work,” she says. “At least for the first three years of the new policy, I don’t hold high hope that things will improve significantly. There is much uncertainty during the early stage of the reform, I have to count on myself.”

A teacher teaches an English class at a summer school in Changchun, Jilin province, 2013. People Visual

A teacher teaches an English class at a summer school in Changchun, Jilin province, 2013. People Visual

“None have quit!”

Cheng Yu, a mother in Shanghai, received the same notice from Best Learning not long after He did. It came as a surprise. Cheng had assumed her daughter, who is starting second grade after the summer, wouldn’t be affected by the reform. “Initially I was just curious how shuangjian would impact other people,” she says. “I never expected my child’s class would be shut down.”

Cheng had waited until her daughter entered primary school before signing her up for just one English class, an approach she sees as reasonable and not deserving of government scrutiny. “I was never preparing her too hard academically — English has been the only academic subject I’ve put her in a tutoring center for,” Cheng tells Sixth Tone. “Now I’m left in a panic. I don’t know how to make sure she can continue learning the language adequately.”

Parents who are called when their child’s tutoring center shuts down and are offered refunds are the lucky ones. Some facilities close quietly or find ways to hold on to tuition funds. Whales English provided online English classes for Chinese children taught by foreign teachers living overseas, a practice now banned. Instead of refunding parents when it announced it would cease operations, the company announced it would transfer students’ remaining classes to other tutoring organizations.

But former Whales English customers tell Sixth Tone they aren’t given many choices; some organizations that agreed to take on their subscriptions only offer computer programming classes. Thousands of parents have organized through groups on social networking app WeChat. “We didn’t receive any notice in advance,” said Zhu Di, a Shanghai-based mother who recently paid over 10,000 yuan ($1,538) for one course. “Nobody can be reached for an explanation.”

Other leading training organizations like Xueersi and New Oriental, both U.S.-listed companies, have had to move their weekend classes to weekdays. At Xueersi, the result is far fewer in-person class slots, as there are limited hours between when schools get out — commonly 3:30 p.m. for primary schools and after 5 p.m. for middle schools — and when tutoring is now mandated to end, at 9:00 p.m.

Gong Linghui, a mother of a nine-year-old in Shanghai, wanted to make sure her son could continue his math classes in-person instead of online. She was in contact with customer support for hours and was told to set an alarm for 9:59 a.m. one mid-August Sunday morning, one minute before parents could start rebooking their classes on Xueersi’s smartphone app. In the end, she secured a seat at a location over 20 kilometers away from her home. “It will still be worth it,” she says.

Having read countless articles about the shuangjian policies and followed the discussions in a dozen WeChat groups filled with thousands of parents, Gong thinks all the policies will achieve is forcing parents to compete for fewer tutoring classes. “None of the people I know have quit extracurricular tutoring sessions so far. None!” she tells Sixth Tone. “I have never been optimistic that the policies will help alleviate anxiety.”

Gong’s son attends a public primary school in downtown Shanghai. She believes the cancellation of weekend and holiday classes puts private school students at an even bigger advantage. “Private schools have always been offering more advanced classes to their students,” she says. “Public school kids previously had the chance to have extracurricular tutoring classes to make up for this gap.”

The changes also mean her son’s weekdays will be filled with school and tutoring classes from morning to evening. “I can imagine my son will have a tougher time on weekdays — three of the evenings will be occupied and that will leave him very limited time practicing the piano every day,” she says.

Students exit an elevator at a building housing multiple tutoring companies in Beijing, May 27, 2018. Li Jianguo/People Visual

Students exit an elevator at a building housing multiple tutoring companies in Beijing, May 27, 2018. Li Jianguo/People Visual

Deciding what matters

Liu Jing, whose daughter will soon enter sixth grade at a public middle school in Shanghai, is one of the few parents Sixth Tone spoke with not beset with anxiety. A stay-at-home mom, Liu keeps her distance from the education rat race. She rarely talks with other parents about tutoring classes, and hasn’t really discussed the shuangjian policies with anyone. “For me, her mental and physical health matter the most,” she tells Sixth Tone.

A few months ago, Liu’s daughter began taking extra classes in English and math. “That was not my idea or her father’s,” she says. “My daughter proposed that she wanted to learn extra from those training schools.” Because the girl thought her school classes were too easy, she had already been learning extra English and math at home, but felt she was reaching the limit of how much she could improve on her own.

Due to the shuangjian policies, she won’t be able to take those classes during the weekends now. “That means it will become more exhausting for her to study on weekdays,” Liu says, adding that it’s up to her daughter whether she wants to continue taking the courses. “Honestly, I have never intervened in her choices. If she doesn’t want to go, that will save me money,” Liu says, adding that having a child spend more time with their family is more meaningful than taking extra classes.

However, Han Meng, another Shanghai mom, thinks all the extracurricular classes her daughter took have been well worth the time, effort, and money. The girl just finished a grueling final year of middle school, during which she spent every Saturday attending 10 hours of tutoring courses and every Sunday on her homework. School breaks were filled with yet more classes. But in the end, the payoff was that she tested into a good high school. “It was a crazy year,” Han tells Sixth Tone.

It’s hard to imagine fitting such a schedule into weekdays only, Han says. “It’s impossible.” As the shuangjian policies only apply to the compulsory education period, which ends at middle school, they won’t affect Han’s daughter. But her little brother is entering fifth grade, the last year of primary school.

Han thinks that, ultimately, parents will choose to continue to put their children into as many extra classes as possible because performing well on high school and university entrance exams remains all-important. “If the selection mechanism remains unchanged, the pressure of academically preparing children won’t be gone,” she says.

Han has been sending her son to a few smaller tutoring organizations, which have so far flown under the authorities’ radar and kept their original vacation and weekend classes in place. “I hope they can continue staying low-profile,” she says. “None of the families wish to see the courses interrupted by the reforms. Above all, the children have entered a critical period in their education.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A boy waits for his parents after finishing an extracurricular class in Beijing, May 27, 2019. Li Jianguo/People Visual)