Why are international schools popular in China

Education in China: The kids have to fly to the moon, at least

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Franka Lu is a Chinese journalist and entrepreneur. She works in China and Germany. In this ZEIT-ONLINE series, she reports critically about life, culture and everyday life in China. In order to protect her professional and private environment, she writes under a pseudonym.

A joke was recently on social media in China, it goes like this: The Chinese government wants to send astronauts to the moon within three months, but the Ministry of Aviation Industry still has problems with the technology. The Ministry of Education agrees to take on the task. It has the problems for solution distributed as homework to all Chinese schools. Three months later, a thousand Chinese parents fly to the moon.

Many Chinese middle-class parents laugh bitterly at this joke because it so accurately meets the demands placed on them by the educational system. There has long been fierce competition between families who are supposed to spend unimaginable amounts of resources, time, energy and intellectual effort in order to make their children the best possible in the interests of the state. But in the end everyone has to accept the result that the wide income gap and the power structure in China produce: the elite and a lucky few with enough talent reach the moon for their children. Most of them can't.

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Raising middle-class Chinese children is an incredibly expensive project for families, one that is shaped by ancient traditions and the instinct for survival in a country whose economic system creates enormous pressure. However, in addition to the high psychological, financial and social costs, this special kind of child support has also produced a dynamic and real benefit for Chinese society: It acts as an accelerating force in the country's economic development and produces entire generations of ambitious and competitive young Chinese women Chinese - but also those who break under the pressure.

One should say goodbye to one misconception: that the Chinese school system could be the main reason for the excellent performance of many students. Because it made this mistake, the British Ministry of Education initiated a math teacher exchange between the two countries after the excellent Pisa results of the students in Shanghai. The teaching methods of the math teachers from Shanghai differ from those of the British, but the exchange did not produce any particular results (PDF). Every Chinese family knows why: Chinese teachers may be very good, but it is the parents' efforts that are critical to the children's success.

How self-sacrificing can middle-class parents be? There are different statistics on this, after all, the Chinese middle class comprises between 100 and 400 million people, depending on how the middle class is defined. In any case, the financial commitment of the parents in the education of their children is very high. According to the Chinese New Middle Class 2018 White Paper, families with an annual income of 650,000 yuan spent an average of 13 percent on raising their children in 2017. 93 percent of them intend to send them abroad to study, which in many cases would cost the family income for several years. In another investigation, the Chinese edition of the Financial Times presented, the above income bracket is already considered "wealthy", while the income of "middle class families" is estimated at 120,000 yuan. Around 20 percent of the parents in this group switched jobs to raise their children or gave it up completely. 31 to 35 percent bought expensive apartments in the districts with good schools, which is the equivalent of decades of family income. For high school education, expenditure is 33 percent of the annual income of middle-class families. This does not include expenses for pre-school education.

Homework and domestic violence

What these data do not express are the personal efforts, but also the fears, which are connected with the concern for the education of the children and which often have a downright traumatizing effect. The typical family situation is where one or both parents spend at least two to four hours a day helping the child with homework, not to mention extracurricular learning activities. The most difficult part is the test for the annual International Mathematical Olympiad, which is required in many areas and is extremely difficult to pass. (At this year's event in Bath, UK, the Chinese participants - all boys - shared first place with those from the USA.) Homework is a daily nightmare for parents and a frequent cause of family disputes and even domestic violence. Just one of many similar cases from 2018: A man seriously injured his wife because she reprimanded their son for not doing his homework.