By Kumar David –
Two important aspects of Chinese polity help explain why recent interventions of the state in education have created dislocation, or reform, depending on your pro- or anti-China political proclivities. To use an old-fashioned term, the state in China is Stalinist in the sense that it embraces all power and is unwilling to tolerate dissent or criticism. (There are those who say that this is what ensured rapid economic growth and eradicated poverty, but that’s a different side that I don’t wish to be dragged into today). The Chinese CP is ideologically totalitarian: “Total” in the sense that it will not share space and air with other ideologies (bourgeois or capitalist creeds, the Christian Churches, Fulan Gong, competing political theories or ‘heretical’ Marxist interpretations). This is because the CCP is theoretically insecure and alarmed by competition in “belief space”; its Marxism is formulaic. This essay does not embark on an assessment of the rights and wrongs of CCP ideology; for today I only want you to stay with my description for the remainder of this essay.
The other aspect of Chinese state, society and economy that I take as a premise is that China is not a capitalist State, whatever features of capitalism it integrates into its economic and institutional structures. I argued this at length and depth in a paper at the Hector Abhayavardena Felicitation Symposium in 2000, “China’s Socialist Market Economy: Viable Concept or Oxymoron”. (Proceedings edited by Rajan Philips and published by Marshal Fernando’s Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in 2001). The thesis advanced in that paper remains remarkably valid still, 21 years on. If this monkey may be allowed to shamelessly praise its own tail, it is the best characterisation of the Chinese State to date. I cannot summarise a 30 or 40 page paper here but a few cardinal points are worth recalling. The mode of production, extraction of surplus value and the processes of reproduction in China do not correspond to what Marx described as capitalism. Nor do they mirror capitalism now prevailing in American and Western manifestations. Sure there are rich entrepreneurs and investors (capitalists) in China and an educated fast advancing middleclass. The commanding heights of ‘old’ economy (oil, minerals, energy, heavy industry) are exclusively state owned. Entrepreneurship and new technology (export industry, high-tech, and finance-capital) are predominantly in the hands of a new capitalist class. China possesses a prominent capitalist class (owners of capital) but that class is not at the helm of state. A monopoly of state power rests with the Communist Party and the foundation of the Party is 80 million strong – a mass base. Oh hell! You wail that you don’t know what descriptive label to stick on this animal. You are at a loss for a good definition for this state form? Welcome to the club; let’s call it a Duckbilled Platypus. Biology and history go their way and care not a whit for your bookish travails.
To return to the theme of this essay, the sudden changes that have been made in the educational structure were so unexpected that it took the country by surprise. I cannot detail it all, so I have provided you with four URLs to Hong Kong and American sites. Furthermore these changes in education parallel radical state interventions in the control of private enterprises undertaken in recent months.
A one para synopsis of my discussion last week (8 Aug: “Uncertain Sino-US Relations in the Biden Era”) about the state muscling in on private enterprises must suffice. E-marketing, social-media and ‘Fintech’ (finance-technology) giants like Alibaba, Ant-Group, Tencent, ByteDance, TikTok and ride-hailing (Uber like) Didi, are all being tethered and put under tight control. Listing in foreign markets (New York and Hong Kong), scrutiny of corporate data and alleged illegal collection and use of personal data, are under stringent review. The truth is that it is a two pronged strategy; obsession with political control, and secondly enhanced anti-trust policy intervention. At this time when anti-trust policies are falling by the wayside in America the second is a forward step. Sure big money talks loud in China, but whether you like it or not the Party talks louder; make no mistake about that. Big capital and its Congressional caucuses, the GOP and America’s media determine how far a President can go in flouting the interests of capital and finance capital in the US – that’s a different ballgame.
The material below is culled from the four websites I mentioned above but my views are woven in throughout, hence the responsibility is mine. Why China cracked down on education and upended a US$70+ billion tutoring industry affecting millions of students and thousands of jobs, was to control discourse and ideology. Xi Jinping believes that ideology needs to be “rectified” at the root, which is the educational process itself. After-school tutoring establishments were told by the education ministry that teaching material would be subject to “advanced censorship”. The government, as I suggested in para one above, is alarmed that the content of private tutoring courses may not adhere to the official line. The State Council banned for-profit teaching of core subjects after school and restricted foreign investment in teaching companies. Classes on holidays and during winter and summer vacations are prohibited. One specific instruction is that teachers based in overseas countries are “strictly banned” from participating in teaching in China. Inexplicably the ban has been extended to overseas-based language-learning apps such as Duo-lingo, Mem-rise and Bee-ling-app, which have disappeared from app stores. Duo-lingo one of the world’s most popular language-learning apps offers courses in 40 languages and has 40 million users, 15 million in China, says the South China Morning Post. Tech giants Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance have also jumped on the bandwagon and invested in the $70+ billion private education sector.
The ban has a vital social side. Just as with the movement against the private medical college in Sri Lanka, educational inequality is an explosive issues among low-income students. Low-income citizens and rural areas resent poor opportunities to benefit from the private tutoring industry for upward mobility. After-school tutoring where it is available and for those who can afford the best, helps only the upper strata to strengthen its position. (See Ramya Kumar “KNDU: MBBS for the rich, crumbs for the poor” in The Island 10 August). My Hong Kong friends insist that sociological concerns are far more pressing than ideological ones in Chinese language social media debates on ongoing reforms. Property prices are soaring in the vicinity of good schools because of “catchment’ rules and the poor have no chance of owning property in the vicinity. There is much anger in the poorer sections of society about unequal educational opportunities.
The overseas press does not give prominence to complaints from low-income families but this is a major confrontational social issue that the Party is facing. Xi Jinping criticised after-school tutoring in 2018: “It has increased burdens on students and family financial burdens, violated education law and disrupted normal order in education. A conscientious industry cannot run as a profit-seeking industry. Off-campus training institutions must be regulated so that they can return to the track of educating people.” In public debate the government is under fierce criticism from the “common man” for failing to provide adequate, let alone equal opportunities. Bloomberg calls Xi Jinping’s initiative “progressive authoritarianism”. The unprecedented crackdown comes from the top, beyond education ministry control. The intention is not to target private enterprise but to “rectify education itself”. The education market is careening wildly but the government wants it to keep a distance from large capital because the issue has ignited much anger at the grassroots level.
Middleclass parents on the other hand are concerned that the crackdown on for-profit tutoring will hurt their children’s prospects. Typically: “I’m terrified every day. I don’t know if the classes I signed my daughter up for can be completed. I can’t stop sending her to after-school tutoring, because the school-selection mechanism has not changed, and every parent wants their child to go to a better school”. Well-off and middleclass families see the tutoring industry as a means to an enhanced social status and ensure a more prosperous future for their progeny. It is unnecessary to expand on this which is a primary concern of parents everywhere.
But there is a deep socio-economic contradiction brewing. The government relies on the educated middleclass for economic growth. The economy is surging towards hi-tech which is predicated on the availability of a highly educated population. It can’t afford to damp down on the surge to elitism in education. It is true that China has invested heavily in vocational schools and has the world’s largest vocational educational sector, however elite parents are not fans of vocational schools and want their children to enter prestigious universities. It’s a perennial concern everywhere in the world but more acute in China than the West due to an inherited and still prevailing cultural ethos. There is another dimension to the crisis. Thanks to the one-child policy legacy the country faces a demographic crunch. Pivoting away from this policy did not create a baby boom; the country’s population in 2100 will be about half its current size. There are rumours of making divorce more difficult! This threatens China’s long-term economic and geopolitical prospects. In the short-term the CCP is subordinating growth and profitability for broader national objectives but whichever way things turn the challenge ahead is profound. It is going to be Xi Jinping’s most testing encounter. Clearly China is ready to weather a downturn in stock market valuations as a result of its crackdown on Tech and Fintech giants, but failure to provide adequate educational opportunities for the populace at large while ensuring high quality education for China’s best will be a far graver challenge.