In ancient China, education was the only way out of poverty – in recent times it has been best way. China’s economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But theses days China’s education system only leads to jobs for at few, educating a new generation to unemployment and despair.
“In China, the most lucrative Industry is Education.” Wang Zhenxiang, Tutor, Hongbo Education.
There is a worldwide economic crisis, but everywhere parents are told that their children may escape the worst if they are educated, and everywhere children are pressured to climb the rungs of the ladder and acquire the totem of middle class life – a university education. But does education secure what it is supposed to? Can a degree really get you out of poverty?
Weijun Chen’s film, set in Wuhan in central China, looks at the realities of Chinese education through the lives of Wang Zehnxiang, a tutor at the private Hongbo Education college, Wang Pan, high school graduate and would be student, and Wan Chao, graduate job seeker who goes from one unpromising interview to another.
China is exam and test obsessed. Each year 9 million high school students sit their most competitive exam, the College Entrance Exam. China’s economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty, as the Chinese saying puts it “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” But China’s education system only leads to jobs for a few, with two million graduates each year, like Wan Chao, joining the ‘ant tribe’ desperately trawling the job market. Disillusionment is rife, as one of Wan Chao’s fellow job seekers comments “It’s like our country has lost all communist ideas and principles…”
The reality is that good grades, confidence and ambition aren’t enough to secure a salary that will cover the cost of living, let alone pay off any undergraduate debt.
In spite of this, the Chinese government still tells its citizens that the country is a meritocracy where individuals’ best efforts will contribute to the overall success of nation and party. High school graduate Wang Pan’s College Entrance exam scores were low, yet her mother holds onto this idea “Just because this time you have a lower starting point doesn’t mean you don’t try”, she chides her daughter. The low score means that Wang Pan isn’t eligible for a place in a sought after State University, making the unregulated and often unscrupulous private colleges her only option. “We are a private enterprise and not really a college” observes Wang Zhenxiang, IT tutor at Hongbo Education “strictly speaking, it is a company. We attract the students and get their fees and send them on their way. We don’t teach them anything and the college doesn’t really care”.
Offering worthless diplomas has become a lucrative business and Wang Zhenxiang and his fellow tutors are dispatched to the countryside to drum up business. A hard line pitch “To study is to escape poverty” accompanied by a persuasive presentation that includes fake pictures of an extensive teaching staff and lavish college facilities targets desperate young people and their families. Remote communities without access to good schools are particularly vulnerable. “The simpler they are,” Wang Zhenxiang comments, “the more likely they would be fooled by us. The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”
Wang Pan’s one-handed mother works as a manual labourer in a brick factory and, despite her husband’s resistance, is determined that Wang Pan should continue with her education “Look at us” she says “labouring without any skills or a certificate, there is no way we can find a good job”. A view shared by many in rural China who know that without modern office skills their children won’t be able to care for their uneducated parents. The price of this education is high and family and friends feel obliged to help out when the Wangs throw a party to raise money for Pan’s tuition fees. “It’s our duty” one family friend remarks.
Wan Chao went to one of the better colleges, but even when he does manage to secure a trial position after a long struggle, he’s quickly dismissed for not processing the spreadsheets fast enough. He soon runs out of money and motivation, breaks down, and moves home. “I am not being picky” he reflects “but I feel like I have become worthless.”
“Since Sui Dynasty (AD 581), excelling in the Imperial, now National, Examination has been the only way those at bottom of Chinese society can change their destiny. Everyone subscribes to the Confucian maxim that ‘Excellent Learning: An Official’” says filmmaker and Wuhan resident Weijun Chen. “But since 1995, the industrialization of education has taken that opportunity away, freezing social mobility and leaving most Chinese people with no way of changing their lives. If a society freezes, the people become hopeless and so the society becomes hopeless.”