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Spending on Education Soaks up Spare Cash
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Being one of the largest national monopolies, education is competing with other cultural services like a superpower against small poor countries, and is pushing them into a helpless state.

In fact, Chinese families have been forced to spend so much money on education whether for kindergarten or for university that not much is left in their budget after they have bought food, clothes and daily necessities.

Statisticians' recent revisions of economic figures on the national level, followed by those of various cities, are showing a surprisingly small share of culture and entertainment.

In the best-case scenario, such as in Beijing and Shanghai, the sector of culture and entertainment only occupies more than 8 per cent of their total GDP (gross domestic product). While in Shenzhen, which proudly claimed to supply a hefty chunk of the world's wristwatches and polished gems, officials were deeply embarrassed to admit that they only made up less than 5 per cent (or rather 4.77 percent, according to the local press) of the GDP.

According to 2003 data from the National Statistics Bureau, the sector of cultural industries sustained jobs for more than 12 million people and had 357 billion yuan (US$44 billion) in value-added revenue, or 3.1 percent of the national GDP of the year.

Although there must be revisions according to the new statistical method to measure 2004 GDP, the overall share of cultural businesses is unlikely to enjoy a major increase. They are only a small fraction of the economy, after all.

In fact, even in the cities envied by people elsewhere for their cultural lives, there are similar embarrassments to Shenzhen's. In Beijing, many residents told the press in the year (2005) to celebrate the centennial of the Chinese movie, that they had not been in a movie theatre for as long as almost two decades.

A survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) shows that Beijing's movie-goers (those who have bought at least one ticket in a whole year) went down from 17.8 per cent in 2003 to 12.4 percent in 2004, and further down to 12.2 percent in 2005.

One limitation for the poor movie market, as a local newspaper suggested, is residents' meagre income. But that conclusion is shaky indeed. Not to mention the fact that the overall income of Beijingers has been on the rise for the last few years. In the pre-reform era, when they earned much less, there were swarms of movie-goers and every movie theatre was making good money.

The city is now claiming to have exceeded US$5,000 in per capita GDP, but how could it be that 90 percent of its residents have just stopped going to the movies?

In fact, the answer is in the very same CASS survey, which reveals that in 2005, of the 800 billion yuan (US$98.6 billion) culture-related expenses incurred by all Chinese households, half went to education.

I don't know how the CASS researchers did their calculation. But from the daily news reports in the Chinese press, and from conversations one can hear from every Chinese office, it may not be too far off.

One university student, it is reported, would have to spend some 13,000 yuan (US$1,600) a year for tuition and school administration. The amount can exceed 20,000 yuan (US$2,466) when lodging and daily expenses are included. The average urban family may just earn around 5,000 yuan (US$617) a month, or 60,000 yuan (US$7,400) per annum.

Of course a couple would think twice, and most probably drop the idea, when they have to pay 120 yuan (US$15) for a movie show while financing a child going to university. That is to say, when the admission to movie theatre rose from below 10 yuan (US$1.23) to 60 yuan (US$7.40) in two decades, a family's task for financing a university student rose from almost nothing to one-third of the household income.

As is often the case, it is after its demands for food, clothes and daily necessities are satisfied that a household can budget for cultural items. And if one item requires too much in upfront payment, other items are postponed or abandoned. This is what happened to movies, Peking Opera, concerts, sports events and exhibitions.

We saw that in an earlier survey about Jiangsu, one of China's wealthiest coastal provinces. In the first half of 2005, its average urban household spent only a meagre 31 yuan (US$3.82) on cultural and entertainment activities. But on education, it would spend 221 yuan (US$27.30). A striking contrast indeed.

(China Daily January 16, 2006)

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