Shenzhen, China – Private education companies that provide extracurricular lessons to legions of Chinese children are in the crosshairs of the government, as officials seek to ease pressure on students and the financial burden on families. Though aimed at private tutoring firms, the crackdown is symptomatic of wider systemic problems facing China as the ruling Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary this week.
Income inequality, regional economic divides, and wide gaps in opportunity between rural and urban citizens were issues highlighted by China’s President Xi Jinping in a late January speech as pressing matters the nation must tackle to reach what he called an era of “common prosperity” in the coming years.
China’s leaders steer clear of the phrase “middle-income trap” – a condition where a country fails to reach a higher, more developed status – but that’s where the country could end up if leaders fail to address those fissures.
Xi’s remedies – better income distribution, education, social security, affordable medical care, housing, elderly care, child support, and quality employment; also mentioned in the same speech – are many of the same wants as most working families and youths.
Current structural and political barriers, however, may be too formidable to deliver those policies unless deeper reforms are implemented beyond piecemeal efforts such as lifting restrictions on the number of children families can have or trying to mandate less homework for school-age children.
They will be expensive and will likely need the country’s most wealthy to pay heavier tax rates, either through property taxes or capital gains taxes. But implementing such policies is fraught with peril. Do it too fast and could lead to capital flight, problems in the white-hot property market and financial system disturbances that do more harm than good.
And there are other structural barriers. The country’s hukou system ties social benefits to a family’s rural or urban hometown, and the overemphasis on the gaokao – standardised exams – determine whether students can advance to university and achieve higher rates of economic success.
Growing pressures on parents and students over the past decade have increased the necessity to reform these systems as incomes have stagnated and social mobility has ossified.
That shift has given rise to much-discussed social conditions in recent months: tangping – or lying flat – an action of making as little effort as possible to get by, and its partner philosophy of “involution” – a feeling of despair or burnout, particularly among those involved in the 996 working culture, working from 9am to 9pm six days a week.
For more from The Mint on China, check out Joe Zammit-Lucia’s article on ‘China Shock’