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Futures trading, Chinese style
Officials at state-run schools demand steep payoffs from parents who want their children to get an academic edge.
For Chinese children and their devoted parents, education has long been seen as the key to getting ahead in a highly competitive society. But just as money and power grease business deals and civil servant promotions, the academic race here is increasingly rigged in favour of the wealthy and well connected, who pay large sums and use connections to give their children an edge at government-run schools.
Nearly everything has a price, parents and educators say, from school admissions and placement in top classes to leadership positions in Communist youth groups. Even front-row seats near the blackboard or a post as class monitor are up for sale.
Zhao Hua, a migrant from Hebei Province who owns a small electronics business in Beijing, said she was forced to deposit $4, 800 into a bank account to enrol her daughter in a Beijing elementary school. At the bank, she said, she was stunned to encounter officials from the district education committee armed with a list of students and how much each family had to pay. Later, school officials made her sign a document saying the fee was a voluntary "donation".
"Of course I knew it was illegal, " she said. "But if you don't pay, your child will go nowhere. "
Bribery has become so rife that Xi Jinping devoted his first speech after being named the Communist Party's new leader this month to warning the Politburo that corruption could lead to the collapse of the party and the state if left unchecked. Indeed, ordinary Chinese have become inured to a certain level of official malfeasance in business and politics. But the lack of integrity among educators and school administrators is especially dispiriting, said Li Mao, an educational consultant in Beijing. "It's much more upsetting when it happens with teachers because our expectations of them are so much higher, " he said.
Affluent parents in the United States and around the world commonly seek to provide their children every advantage, of course, including paying for tutors and test preparation courses, and sometimes turning to private schools willing to accept wealthy students despite poor grades. But critics say China's state-run education system - promoted as the hallmark of Communist meritocracy - is being overrun by bribery and cronyism. Such corruption has broadened the gulf between the haves and have-nots as Chinese families see their hopes for the future sold to the highest bidder.
In China, education through junior high school is mandatory, and free, but the reality is often more complicated. As a child grows up, parents lacking connections must pay repeatedly for better educational opportunities. Across the country, such payments take the form of "school choice" fees that open the door to schools outside the district or town listed on a family's official residency permit.
These illegal fees are especially onerous for the millions of struggling migrant workers who have moved to distant cites. The Ministry of Education and the State Council, China's cabinet, have officially banned "school choice" and other unregulated fees five times since 2005, yet school officials and relevant government departments keep finding creative ways around the ban, allowing them to keep the cash flowing.
At some top-ranked high schools, students with low admission test scores can "buy" a few crucial points that put them over the threshold for admission. According to an unwritten but widely known policy at one elite Beijing high school, students receive an extra point for each $4, 800 their parents contribute to the school. "All my classmates know about it, " said Polly Wang, 15, a student who asked that the school not be named to avoid repercussion.
Some parents have found that the only way to preserve any integrity is to reject a Chinese education altogether. Disgusted by the endemic bribery, Wang Ping, 37, a bar owner in Beijing, decided to send her son abroad for his education. In August, she wept as she waved goodbye to her only child, whom she had enrolled at a public high school in Iowa.
"China's education system is unfair to children from the very beginning of their lives, " she said. "I don't want my son to have anything more to do with it. "
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