But now, with her daughter entering the anxiety-filled application process for middle school, Yang is questioning that principle. She has watched her friends shower teachers and school administrators with favors, presents and money. One friend bought a new elevator for a top school. His child was admitted soon after.
Reining in corruption has been the main focus of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. But such campaigns are barely making a dent, critics say, in a country where children are shown as early as elementary school how to game the system.
Almost everything, from admission to grades to teacher recommendations, is negotiable in Chinese schools if you know the right person or have enough cash, parents and teachers say. As a result, many believe, the education system is worsening rather than mending the vast gap between the elite and everyone else in China.
As middle-class parents in Haidian, one of Beijing’s most competitive school districts, Yang, 42, and her husband had some money but few connections to help their daughter get into an elite school.
Then, this summer, a dance teacher pulled Yang aside. He said he knew people at the middle school her daughter had been aiming all her efforts toward attending.
And suddenly, Yang admits, she started looking into how much savings she and her husband could cobble together if the dance teacher’s friends were to ask for compensation. She still hasn’t decided what to do.
Their dilemma, she said, boils down to this: “If everyone else is playing the game, how can I refuse?”
Besting the competition
In Chinese cities, the best schools are the public ones.
Private schools are often aimed either at foreign expats or children barred from city schools, such as the offspring of low-income Chinese migrant workers.
Even by Western standards, the top public schools are often astounding.
During a recent tour of Beijing’s Jingshan School, administrators showed off a $326,000, one-story-high telescope for astronomy lessons, housed in a rotating room with retractable ceiling; flat-screen televisions in every class; pricey computer labs; an Olympic-size pool; and a state-of-the-art hydroponics garden. The school recently began requiring doctoral degrees for all upper-grade teachers.
Meanwhile, just miles away, at a private school for migrant families, kids walked off a dirt road into a ramshackle facility with cracked walls, overcrowded classes and a single bathroom consisting of cement-lined holes in the ground.
An intense competition has developed among parents to win admission for their offspring to the best schools.
Academic performance still matters greatly. And like many students, Yang’s 12-year-old daughter, Ma Qianyi, has spent every night over the past three years, even on weekends and vacations, attending expensive cram classes.