Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) campaign to reduce the burden of homework and after-school tuition for Chinese kids is creating a boom for sports and arts clubs.
China Central Television reported that 33,000 arts and sports outlets were launched in just more than a month after the government published its “double reduction” document in late July, which banned academic tutoring during weekends and holidays, and ordered schools to reduce the amount and time needed for assignments.
The government clampdown, which would help rebalance China’s labor force, improve health and buttress Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology, has sent parents scrambling to find alternative classes that would still give their children an advantage in the nation’s intensely competitive education and labor market.
“I’ve had phone calls from parents inquiring about kids’ courses almost every day recently,” said He Jianwei, who owns an eponymous boxing club in east Beijing. “After all, children can’t be too weak if the nation aspires to be strong.”
On a windy Sunday afternoon this month, children wearing boxing gloves and shin guards are sweating in the club as they punch and kick pads held by coaches, hissing “shee” with each strike to amplify the effect. The school has been teaching adults martial arts such as Muay Thai, wrestling and Brazilian jiu jitsu since 2013, and began providing regular classes for children as young as four a year ago.
Sitting on a couch in the reception area, Jenny Liu waits for her seven-year-old son to finish his session.
“The double reduction policy gave us time for exercise,” said the 39-year-old mother, who put him into the class last month, shortly after the company that provided his math tuition was shut down. “Guoguo comes three times a week unless he’s sick.”
Chinese parents are not enrolling their children just to give them something to do. The weighting of arts and sports in school tests is rising. The government has pledged to “gradually increase” the score of sports in the senior-high school entrance exam, and regions such as the southern province of Hainan have listed swimming, soccer, basketball and volleyball as options for students to get additional credits.
The effort to rein in academic excess reflects an imbalance in China’s labor market. As Chinese households became more affluent, parents prioritized schoolwork over physical development, deeming blue-collar jobs punishment for those who are not hard-working or smart enough. That created a boom for colleges and private tutors.
Now, millions more students graduate from universities every year and many cannot find a job that fits their qualifications. The number of university graduates has ballooned to nearly 8 million last year, more than 30 percent up on a decade earlier, according to Bloomberg calculations using data from the Chinese Ministry of Education.
In addition, the country’s young people are increasingly suffering from obesity, myopia and depression. More than half of China’s school children are short-sighted and nearly one in five between the ages of six and 17 is overweight or obese, Chinese National Health Commission data show.
The government plans to get almost 20 million more people to participate in regular exercises within five years, and to make sure every county and community has gym equipment.
The change in emphasis could help China’s manufacturing and industrial sectors by diverting more students to training that would fill a shortfall of skilled factory workers. The authorities have made it clear they want enrollment in secondary vocational schools to be roughly equivalent to that of regular high schools. Currently, about 57 percent of middle-school graduates go on to high schools, education ministry figures show.
That has raised concerns among parents that more children would miss the chance of sitting entrance exams for a coveted university place. Worse still, for those that switch to vocational training, the shift toward artificial intelligence and automation in industry could eventually diminish prospects for factory workers whose skills become redundant.
The new education priorities include the arts, and Xi has called on writers and artists to pursue “professional excellence and moral integrity.”
However, not all artists are favored. Like the statues and posters that abounded during the rise of communism in the 20th century, the young model citizens should be envoys of the CCP.
The government has taken aim at “politically incorrect” pop stars and the fan-based culture that idolizes them, clamping down on behavior that “shows off wealth and extravagant lifestyles.” It has tightened controls over the playing of video games and vowed to stamp out “distorted views of beauty” such as the fashion trend of androgynous male stars.
For the parents, the changes mean finding alternatives to academic courses that would still further their children’s chances of landing a good job, or, for those who can pay for it, private tutors.
“I’m afraid the gap could get even wider as the elite families can afford one-on-one tutoring privately,” Liu said.
Still, she hopes boxing will help her shy boy become stronger, healthier and more outgoing.
“I’d like him to be able to protect himself from being bullied by others,” she said. “I don’t want him to work in a factory — that would be too back-busting.”
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