Thursday, July 29, 2010

NPR - Religion and One Child Policy in China

My beloved National Public Radio has run a couple of excellent stories over the past few weeks. I was only able to catch bits and pieces of them as they happened live on the radio. But I found time today to catch up on the both of the series - New Believers: A Religious Revolution in China and China's One Child Policy.

The first series - New Believers - was in five parts. The following clips ran Monday through Friday on the program, All Things Considered:

In The Land Of Mao, A Rising Tide Of Christianity
China’s Divided Catholics Seek Reconciliation
Female Imams Blaze Trail Amid China's Muslims
Beijing Finds Common Cause With Chinese Buddhists
China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims
All of these contain either audio slide shows or photos, so be sure to check those out along with the audio.

This is a worthwhile series. It covers a lot of the bases that should be covered in a China religion discussion. In particular, I found the story on the female imams of Henan Province informative. I was not aware that China had such a unique sect of Islam. There are no female imams outside of China.

The second series - China's One Child Policy - was also a week-long series. It ran on the program, Marketplace by American Public Media:

How China's one-child policy came to be
One-child workers: A generation of 'little emperors'
China's only children carry family hope
In China: More kids or more stuff?
Chinese labor pool on the decline
Back Story
Also be sure to check out the "Cast of Characters" at the bottom of the page. It profiles some of the 老百姓 - normal Chinese people - covered in the stories.

These programs too were all very good. I want to highlight one section from the third one, "China's only children carry family hope," that particularly resonated with me:

Scott Tong: For sixth grader Fang Jin Xue, the day starts at seven, sharp, with a...

Fang Rong: Baobei kuai dian!

Hurry up! From her mom. The 12 year-old grunts a word of compliance. And then pulls on her clothes: Green hoodie sweatshirt, black cotton pants and pink eyeglasses. The morning hustle feels like my house on a school day -- but this is a Saturday.

Fang Jin Xue explains why: Tutoring class, every weekend.

Fang Jin Xue: First, two classes of English. Then one science, one writing, one Chinese. Then two math classes. It goes late, so we eat dinner at the school.

Mom Fang Rong nukes some sesame porridge. They wolf it down. And scamper down seven flights of stairs -- no elevator here. It's hectic, mom says. Every family is racing to get its one child ahead.

Fang Rong: Competition is fierce, so we all feel we have to do something, right or wrong. If parents don't put kids in tutoring classes, they panic.

Fang Rong, the mom, is a factory quality control worker, making $7,000 a year, about the median income in urban China. Dad works at a factory too. Together, they spend 10 percent of their income on their daughter's schooling. Surveys suggest other families shell out as much as 50 percent.

It makes for a thriving education market, says Tom Doctoroff at the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson.

Tom Doctoroff: Anything that helps a kid become smarter, and able to compete in an increasingly dog-eat-dog landscape is a priority for the parents. Whether it's English lessons or piano lessons, parents are gonna spend money and time in making sure their kids are equipped to rise.

Read/listen to the entire story

I saw this kind of stuff first-hand. In fact, a huge chunk of my time in China was spent working at a private English training school first as a teacher and then later as a manager.

The school I worked for, which was one of many that the American-owned company operated throughout China, was a weekend "training schools" like the one described in this program. Chinese children would attend a two hour session of classes at the "school" every weekend for 24 weeks (two weekends off every six months). The parents would pay about an average of $200 for a semester of classes.

The classes' costs were based upon how much time was spent with the foreign teacher. If a foreign teacher taught the entire two hour block, it cost $200 a semester. If a foreign teacher only taught thirty minutes of the class, then the classes would be about half that price.

I'm not real crazy about the kind of English training schools that I'm describing. I don't want to say these kinds of training schools are completely worthless. They aren't. I saw some incredibly talented students take great advantage of their weekend English classes. But, in general, the teachers were poorly trained, the books terribly-designed, and the students nearly impossible to control. I would probably not recommend the school, or any like it, to a Chinese family wanting the best for their kid.

The school, started by Americans in the late 1990s, is a huge success financially though. That's just it, the school cares more about making money than the kids learning anything. Because of their $uccess (and the $uccess that other competing schools are finding), these sorts of cash cows schools are going deeper and deeper into the heart of China and millions upon millions more children are going to have the opportunity to attend them. They aren't going away any time soon.

My disillusionment for these kinds of schools surely results from me having worked in one for a while. But it also has to do with the fact that Chinese children have no lives outside of studying. I really wish Chinese kids were given the opportunity to act like kids.

So many of the children I saw on the weekends at my school were worn down. They were being forced by their parents to attend English class, math class, Chinese class, piano, etc. etc. On top of that, they were drowning from homework from their Monday through Friday school, which they usually attended in the morning from 7AMish until noon, in the afternoon from 2:30 to 5:30, and then in the evening from 7:30 until 9:00 five days a week (and sometimes either on Saturday morning or Sunday evening).

I would sometimes tell older Chinese kids about the way I grew up in America. I went to school from 8:30AM until 3:10PM. I played on soccer, basketball, and baseball teams outside of school. I did stuff outside - went swimming, made snowballs, etc. I aimlessly rode my bike. I watched too much TV. I was basically an average, generation-Y, suburban kid. That sounds like heaven to the Chinese children of today.

There are a lot of reasons why Chinese kids face such pressure. More than I can quantify. But there are two things that I feel contribute.

I'm convinced a large part of what I and the NPR story are describing has to do with China's civil society, or lack thereof. China is just barren in so many ways in this area. I'm sure that as China improves, its civil society will improve. But at the moment, during this time of massive change for every person in China, things like community groups, organizations, or even, gulp, religious infrastructure just haven't fully developed. Contemporary China, in many ways, is just too Darwinian and every-man-an-island. This will change. But it will take time.

I'm also confident that the one child policy has a lot to do with the heavy burdens placed on Chinese children. Nearly every young child in China is the hope, joy, and treasure for its parents. It's all or nothing.

Given where China is today, one can understand why Chinese children face the pressures they do and Chinese parents smother their children.


Ramesh said...

Mmmmm interesting. The pressure on children is common across Asia. Its a cross cultural thing here and I don't think its particularly influenced by the one child policy. South Korea is even worse. India is no better. Its mainly because of extreme competition. When you have 10,000 applicants for each decent college seat, the slogging is perhaps understandable.

One para in your post really caught me - the lack of the civil society in China. I've felt it very strongly. One of the huge transformations has been the absolute primacy of money and the individualism that brings. It seems to have completely overtaken China and I've often felt the soul is missing. Not sure if you felt the same way.

Mark said...

I appreciate the comment, Ramesh. I don't have a deep perspective of Asia outside of China. So I always appreciate the knowledge of India and the rest of Asia you share here.

I've seen articles about South Korea and every family's desire to send their kids to America to study. You've talked about that with India too.

I agree with you on the civil society. When I was writing that paragraph, all I could think about was social Darwinism. I feel that primacy of money and soullessness too. I suppose people have to embrace such a life in contemporary China or they could be left behind.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, money, money, money. I have been trying for 7 years now to get my wife to relax about money. Its pretty high on my list of cultural pet peeves as well, this primacy of money.

We just got back from vacation today and after getting my car out of long term parking and paying at the gate, she starts going through alternate scenarios and how they would have resulted in saving 5 or 10 bucks. She starts calculating out loud how much it would have cost to take a cab and with tip and.... and right then I lost it. "We have just spent 6 hours on a bleeping plane, its midnight, and you still are gonna worry about how we could have saved 5 bucks somewhere!"