Although the Communist ideology that ostensibly underpins the Chinese government calls for meritocracy when it comes to education, the reality on the ground is increasingly becoming very different. Thanks to the influence exerted by the newly wealthy and well-connected, there's a growing gulf in the Chinese education system between those who can exert influence and those who cannot.
According to The New York Times, every academic tool that can conceivably lend a leg-up is obtainable for a bribe. From placement in the best schools and the best classes, to something as seemingly trivial as a classroom seat closest to the blackboard.
The culture of bribery is alive throughout China — not just in education. It has become such a big issue that it was the subject of Xi Jinping's first speech after taking up position as leader of the Communist Party. Xi issued a warning to colleagues that corruption is becoming so rampant that it is threatening the stability of the Party itself.
Still, on a certain level, it seems like the Chinese have become inured to some level of official corruption. Yet, as the problem is spreading to education, despair among those who are afraid they will no longer be able to afford to give their children the best shot in life is forcing many more to go public. Li Mao, who serves as an education consultant in Beijing, says that since teachers typically bear the burden of higher expectations, the fact that they would participate in bribery is especially difficult for many to understand and accept.
It begins even before the first day of school as the competition for admission to elite schools has created a lucrative side business for school officials and those connected to them. Each spring, the Clean China Kindergarten, which is affiliated with the prestigious Tsinghua University and situated on its manicured campus in Beijing, receives a flood of requests from parents who see enrollment there as a conduit into one of China's best universities. Officially, the school is open only to children of Tsinghua faculty. But for the right price — about 150,000 renminbi, or about $24,000, according to a staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation — a Tsinghua professor can be persuaded to "sponsor" an applicant.
The price only goes higher with each grade. Although education in a local school through junior high school is free, those wishing to get their kids admitted to a better school outside the district must pay up. They are called "school choice" fees — and they are illegal. If you're a migrant family only recently moving to a large city, they are virtually impossible to afford.
Admissions tests aren't immune to this kind of under-the-table dealing, as a few dollars to the right people can ensure that extra crucial points find their way onto anyone's final grade, even if it's just enough to get them in the door of the most exclusive and selective schools on the way to the best colleges and universities.
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."