Nine-year-old Yang Yifan likes school. Sure, it has the usual quota of tedious lessons but he does well enough academically to drift into his own imaginations whenever it suits him. The idea of going home, on the other hand, pours dread into even his most engaging of daydreams.
No, no, it's not that dark. His parents are too busy working to devote time to being alcoholics and an occasional, hesitant slap on the kid's ass doesn't quite match the social services' definition of child abuse.
"It's just that the only thing I am allowed to do at home is study. It's boring, not to mention tiring," said the skinny boy, sitting in his very own 10-square-meter study in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, dwarfed by shelf after shelf of tomes of encouragement: The Road to Tsinghua describes how to get accepted in one of China's most prestigious universities. Exercises for Olympic Mathematics puts a new spin on August, 2008.
Yang gets up at 6:30 AM on schooldays and returns home at 5:30 PM for a further three hours of private tutoring. On weekends, his parents summon the generosity to let him snooze until 8 AM before packing him off to weekend school for Chinese painting classes and piano lessons.
Sunday afternoon is his only playtime. Yang sleeps through it. He is too tired to want to go out with his friends. If he did, they would be asleep anyway.
"I want to be a grown-up, so that I don't have to learn all those things all the time," said Yang.
This is the world of the new breed of Chinese lower middle class and with a population of 1.3 billion people, competition is always going to be intense. That cliche again: China is changing fast. The wealth chasm is yawning and people want to make sure they are on the side of upward mobility and economic well-being.
Parents are scrabbling around for a competitive advantage that can set their child apart from the masses. This, they hope, will guarantee they are accepted by a good school, a respected university and a reputable employer. Reputation, reputation, reputation.
The statistics explain their panic. This summer, 4.95 million students will graduate from institutions of higher learning this year, 820,000 more than last year. About 1.4 million of them -- three out of ten -- are unlikely to find jobs when they graduate.
"Well-off professionals want their children to follow in their footprints to become doctors, lawyers or engineers, while the less educated want their children to achieve more and live better lives," said Yang's father, Yang Hua, a university professor in Wuxi.
"I don't know if it makes any sense for us to work Yang so hard, but it seems we have to do it, just like everyone else does. Because if we don't work hard to get him into a better middle school, other kids will. Then they will always have an advantage over our son in choosing a better university, a better job and ultimately a better life," said Yang.
The pursuit of success means big bucks for private tutoring firms and scrimping for some parents.
"We have to pay 30 yuan per hour for Yang's private tutor who comes to our home for three hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. The weekend painting and piano classes cost 400 yuan a month, which is already a discounted price. We are spending thousands just on the kid's tuition fees and that does not include the exercise books," said Professor Yang, who has a monthly salary of 4,000 yuan.
"But even that does not seem enough," Yang went on, "My wife went to a parents' meeting organized by the school last year and complained that our son was not getting enough sleep and that we were spending too much.
"A few days later, our son came back and told us that a teacher was referring to him as the 'lazy bones' of the class because other parents were spending more and their children were working harder."
Yang Yifan's mother Shen Chen, an accountant at a state-run enterprise, said, "I know the government has been campaigning to reduce public school fees to accommodate more students from families from low and medium income strata. But what they don't see is that tuition fees now only account for a small proportion of the cost of education. The true economic challenge lies in those 'optional' classes which parents buy for their children without hesitation."
The country's craze for English and other foreign languages has been embraced by the country's private education sector. Privately-run bilingual kindergartens and primary schools, which often charge more than 20,000 yuan a year for tuition fees, have sprung up around the country in recent years.
Language training centers like New Oriental are advertising overseas summer camps that cost around 35,000 yuan for two weeks. The average annual income of Beijingers in 2005 was 32,000 yuan, the highest in the country.
According to a report released recently by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 70 percent of Beijing parents aged between 35 and 44 said the only purpose of their family savings was to pay for their children's education, and about 60 percent of Chinese families in major cities now spend one third of their monthly income on it.
The prospect of forking out a huge chunk of their income and barely seeing their child outside the study is preying on the minds of new parents.
"I read an article in a Beijing newspaper the other day written by a mother about her teenage daughter who spends all weekends in Olympic Mathematics classes," said Li Rong, a journalist in the capital.
"The writer said her daughter used to love weekends when the whole family went out for a picnic or a movie. The girl was so happy until she started taking 'Olympic Maths' classes. Her weekends turned into nightmares.
"Now I have a boy. He is only three months old, but I am already worrying about all the hard work and pressure he is going to go through when he turns six or something," she said.
If you have the cash, studying at university overseas is an option. But for the majority, this is a mere pipedream.
"A lot of my friends are planning to send their kids to overseas countries to be educated, but I guess I will stick it out here in China. All I can do is wait for the government to take some action to make it easier for kids as well as parents.
"I don't want to see my son's childhood end at six years old," said Li.
(Xinhua News Agency March 8, 2007)