Media Manipulation: How it’s done

This was an exercise in reading an article from the Economist and interpreting it differently based on my own knowledge and experience in China and particularly with 15 years in the education industry.

The “[JG]”comments are notes I made to myself on reading the original article — each paragraph has been separated — the normal type is the Economist’s article, The italics are my way of writing the same article — hope you find it interesting.

The original of which can be found here: https://www.economist.com/china/2021/06/24/china-is-clamping-down-on-cram-schools

Brought to book[JG1]
A clampdown on cramming schools spooks exam-focused parents

Chinese students and their parents obtain relief from the burdens of extra-curricular education

Until children reach the age of about 15 in China, education is free. So why is it that more than half of a typical family’s spending goes on it? The answer is cramming classes: a financial burden so great that it is often said to discourage couples from having children at all. Now officials are trying to rein in the industry, in part, it appears, to relieve the pressure on people’s wallets. Parents[JG2] are not sure it will work.

Up to the age of 15 Chinese education is free but many parents feel the pressure of getting the best education for their children, due to this, a lot of companies have sprung up and taken advantage of this anxiety to capitalise on the opportunities available by charging the parents for the service that school should be providing. Some schools have even gone so far as to stop providing some of the services they should be offering and, to make more money, send students to the private centres. It’s been found that there are many teachers supplementing their income by working part time in these centres and providing the additional services that they are supposed to be offering in schools. Something had to be done and now the Chinese government has stepped in to correct the situation. There are some parents with concerns but overall, the initiative has been widely praised.

As many of them see it, cramming is not optional. Exams for entry to senior high schools are fiercely competitive. Then comes the dreaded gaokao: the university-entrance exam on which a child’s future hinges. But as the People’s Daily, an official newspaper, reported this month, the market for such services is plagued by “endless chaos”[JG3] . It listed problems ranging from misleading advertising to high prices and the use of unqualified teachers.

Much of the praise has come from concerned parents who have been confused by high prices, unqualified, or dubiously qualified teachers and a lack of supervision meaning that there’s no way to find out what kind of experience, background or qualifications your child’s part time teacher might have. Many of the institutions offering online courses are located offshore, it’s impossible to know if the teacher is a qualified teacher offering valid services, a low-income intern in the Philippines or a white supremacist with a grudge against China in a trailer park in the USA. It was inevitable that the government would take action, what is surprising is how long it took to do so.

Some of the larger institutions were charging huge sums of money and forcing up-front payments to offer these already paid for, sometimes unqualified and even offshore lessons.

Officials began warning months ago that they were preparing to issue regulations to impose order. This sent shivers through the industry. According to Bloomberg, several education firms suspended plans to list their shares. New Oriental, one of China’s biggest cramming companies, saw its share price on the New York Stock Exchange drop below $8, from a high of more than $19 in February. On June 9th the education ministry said a new government department would be set up [JG4] to oversee such businesses, encompassing both online tuition and lessons in the classroom.

Although this move was forecast by President Xi as early as 2018 in one of his published books, many of the private schools and language centres seem to have been taken by surprise. The share prices of the largest of them, New Oriental dropped on the NYSE by as much as 90% before rallying back to just $8:00 from a previous high of $19.

The industry’s growth has been rapid. One firm, Zuoyebang (“help with homework”) says it offers live-streaming classes to more than 170m active users each month. But officials fret about the social impact. They want couples to have more children — the birth rate is the lowest in decades and China is ageing fast. They also say that schoolchildren are overstressed. Urban pupils attend cramming classes for more than 10 hours a week, according to Deloitte, an accountancy firm. There is widespread speculation, including in state media, that the new rules will impose limits on when firms can offer tuition. They may, for example, prohibit classes after a certain time in the evening, during the summer holidays or at weekends.

China’s government has implemented many positive changes to encourage more children, these include the lifting of the family planning policy, known as the “one child policy” and even providing tax incentives and cash payments to new parents. However much of these initiatives were offset by the high costs of, in many cases, unnecessary class time. Moreover, the pressure on kids was enormous with some young students moving from one class to another all-day Saturday and/or Sunday as well as evenings during the week. New rules will limit the amount of time youngsters can attend and also limit the subject to only those subjects which are not taught in school. In other words, kids can take music lessons, take part in dance or sports but can’t go to an English or maths class anymore. It’s fair to say, most kids and their parents see the benefits in this

Some analysts think the government may have another motive. Many of the companies are offshoots of China’s tech giants, including Alibaba and Tencent, which have come under regulatory scrutiny this year for dominating markets and expanding into finance and other areas. Targeting the cramming business could be another way of clipping their wings.[JG5]

This is not the first time that China’s government has moved to protect its population from predatory practices. Tech giants have been brought under closer control in order to prevent such things as data harvesting and selling, to protect the privacy of consumers through the exponential rise in online shopping and social media. They’ve also regulated previously unregulated online finance companies which were offering small loans to entice consumers. As has been seen in many western countries, these loans appear attractive at first but are often only the start of a spiral of debt as the loan becomes due the company offers more until the consumer is in a mountain of debt. China’s government has worked hard to curb these excesses, not wishing to find Chinese consumers in the same position as the United States where personal debt has spiralled out of control[1].

Parents [JG6] wonder whether they will benefit. Some fret that the new rules will leave them with no choice but to use private tutors, which could prove even more costly. The resentful parent of a secondary-school pupil in Beijing blames the Communist Party: “It’s very simple. They just have to control everything, always.”[JG7]

Whilst there are some legitimate concerns as new legislation and a new government department is assembled to deal with industry, it’s obvious that, although there were some very reputable and high-quality services on offer, these were not the majority. Many industry insiders know there are also rogue operators capitalising on fear and anxiety by offering high-cost, sub-standard services to parents looking for the best opportunities in this highly competitive country.

[1] https://usdebtclock.org

[JG1]This is an English expression meaning someone got into trouble and was held to account for it

[JG2]Which parents? There were 16 million children born in 2011 and 10 million born in 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/250650/number-of-births-in-china/

[JG3]Interesting that it mentions these things but doesn’t say they were actually true

[JG4]Is this a good or a bad thing?

[JG5]Speculative and designed to make people think of China as authoritative. Is there any evidence to support this?

[JG6]Which parents?

[JG7]This is a classic quotation to insult both the people of China and the Communist Party of China — they will say they can’t name the parent because that would be dangerous — the party “organs” would crackdown on this kind of dissent.

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Jerry Grey

Jerry Grey

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I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences