Having spent more than 12 years in China, naturally I am interested in China-related current events. However, the experience of studying and working in China gives me quite a different perspective when it comes to forming opinions on China current events. I often feel that in the English speaking world – whether it be in New Zealand where I am from or in other western countries – the way China is portrayed is quite misunderstood and sometimes quite inaccurate.
You have probably heard that recently in China there has been on a ban what is known as “Off-Campus Tutoring”. If a related news headline passed your glimpse, then perhaps you may have thought “Why on earth would the government ban Off-Campus Tutoring?” Or even, “How can the government do such a thing, is this not violating various personal liberties?”. These are certainly questions that seem to be common amongst mainstream media reports on this issue.
If you come from a country such as New Zealand – where I originally hail from – and have not had much to do with China or perhaps other fast-paced Asian societies such as Japan and Korea, you may not be that familiar with the concept of “Off-Campus-Tutoring” and its role in the education of the population. That is because unlike in a country in New Zealand where much of our primary and secondary education is received via state schools and private schools and where most people’s experience of “Off-Campus-Tutoring” as a service would be limited to tuition for extra-curricular activities such as performing arts and sports, in China the effectiveness of primary and secondary schools in delivering education is perceived as insufficient and thus the scope of Off-Campus Tutoring has, up until now, been viewed by most parents as a service necessary to ensure children are able to keep up with the national curriculum. That is because, the national curriculum’s end-goal essentially is to prepare students for the dreaded “GaoKao (高考 or National Higher Education Entrance Examination)” ; this is taken at the end of High School and to a large extent determines whether or not a student can qualify for entrance to University/College, which University/College they can attend and thus, as many believe, the degree of ease to which one will eventually be able to find a well-paid job and have a successful career.
Due to this importance of GaoKao, prior to the recent ban, the vast majority of Chinese families would send their children to attend Off-Campus-Tutoring despite the financial burden created and time investment required by doing so. The view held by most families was that this was the best possible way to ensure that their children had the best possible chance of achieving their best possible result in GaoKao. This environment had enabled the Off-Campus-Tutoring industry value to reach tens of billions of dollars annually – some estimates placing it as high as 70 billion dollars – with huge corporate players emerging in the industry and even listing on the US Stock Exchange. However, this is all now coming to an end with the ban which is already being strictly enforced by the government.
Essentially, it seems that government is now of the mind that reform is required to ensure order is retained in the sphere of education, educational bodies of the state retain their central role in education and that equal opportunities for education are offered to the population. Obviously, one can deduce, that if the primary and secondary school students are unable to keep up with the curriculum unless they receive Off Campus Tuition, then there may be a problem with the effectiveness of the way by which the curriculum is being delivered via the primary and secondary schools. Moreover, the existence of an educational sphere – that is Off Campus Tuition – parallel to the formal education sphere naturally creates inequalities in terms of opportunities for children to succeed in their education since those unable to afford Off Campus Tuition or unable to afford high-quality Off Campus Tuition are disadvantaged when compared with those that can afford it.
In Western Countries such as New Zealand, we tend to relativize regulations and laws against our own individual liberties before we relativize them against the common good. Hence, to us, such a move to ban Off Campus tutoring may seem authoritarian and perhaps even surreal. Many of us perhaps would view this as the government overstepping its role and even infringing on our personal liberties. This is certainly the way that this action by the government has been portrayed in various western media outlets. Indeed, upon first hearing the news of the ban on Off Campus Tuition, it is easy to simply label this as authoritarian and as the government overstepping its role in society. However, in light of the many negative affects on society that this Off Campus Tutoring has had, it seems there is nothing sinister behind this move from the government but rather is simply the government prioritizing the greater good in society.
Firstly, having lived in China and worked as an English tutor many years ago, I have witnessed firsthand how exhausted and horrifically over-burdened many primary and secondary school students are. In contrast to New Zealand, where students generally are only in school from approximately 9am to 3pm and only from Monday to Friday, students in China are generally between school from around 730am to 530pm and in some parts of China the school week is 6-days long. Moreover, outside of school and on the majority of days – including Sunday, prior to the ban, Chinese students would be in some form of Off-Campus Tuition outside of these hours for various subjects including Mathematics, Science, Fine Arts and Foreign Languages. Because of this, it is very typical to see Chinese students going to school with a suitcase packed with all the textbooks and stationary they will need to complete their busy schedule. Seeing how exhausted some of the children are due to the role Off-Campus Tuition plays in creating such a busy and exhausting schedule, I can understand why the issue has received such attention from the government.
Secondly, in recent years, the Chinese government has been promoting better health and nutrition to the population. This has been one factor that has benefitted the import volumes of various foreign food products, for example New Zealand dairy products,to China. In particular, the Chinese government has been promoting health amongst young people and have been encouraging better nutrition and sport – the latter has been particularly emphasized in order to combat the problem of child obesity. Given the previous prevalence of Off Campus Tutoring and its role in creating an education environment where most primary and secondary children were predominately sedentary – sitting in either formal classes or classes for Off Campus Tutoring, it is also easy to see why the government has decided to re-evaluate what had come to be accepted as the status quo..
Thirdly, due to the massive population in China and the historical and cultural importance placed on knowledge, learning and academic success, the educational environment is inherently competitive. In Ancient China, whole villages would sponsor one or a few individuals whom had the best chances of passing the Imperial Exam – the examination for Civil Service which effectively selected candidates for Administrative Officials – to ensure their village retained relevance in the administration. Now, in modern China, due to the pressure created in recent decades by the one-child-policy and the result that, for many families, a single child will eventually be the only familial support for retired parents, the importance placed on education remains. Parents and grandparents pool financial resources into the one offspring that would eventually support them and hence the Off Campus Tuition industry benefited from that hugely. However, if an education system such as the Off Campus Tutoring one is allowed to exist parallel to the formal education system, naturally it will be utilized by those that can afford to do so. Consequently, those unable to afford to utilize it will be disadvantaged. Thus, it appears that t the government has made this decision partly to to ensure that equal opportunities are given to the population.
But, what about the question of whether it violates individual liberties and the right (or perceived right) of us as citizens to purchase what we desire from the market? Well, this may be a question of the individual benefit versus the greater societal good. We may at first glance simply think that this move by the Chinese government is an infringement on personal liberties; however in doing this, we may be overlooking the fact that this “infringement” is actually creating an environment that is more conducive to education and equal opportunities in both education and employment and also creates an environment more healthy for children. Is such a move by a government not similar to those of our own governments – for example in New Zealand – that are made in order to deal with COVID-19? For example, I am a New Zealand citizen and I currently reside in Russia. The last time I left New Zealand was in 2019 – and then I was able to more or less decide to move freely between New Zealand and other countries at my own will and I held that as my personal liberty. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, my ability to return to New Zealand is now subject to a new requirement introduced by the New Zealand government out of concern of the greater good for public health – I now need to first book a quarantine facility in able to return. Moreover, since the recent outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in New Zealand, the New Zealand has paused the release of spaces in the quarantine facility which by default means I am actually being denied my personal liberty of being able to return to New Zealand – since no quarantine spaces are available. Is this not the government infringing on a personal liberty out of concern for the greater good of the public? What do you think?