Falling out of the Middle Class?

In a recent episode of the Chinese TV drama “A Love Dilemma”, two husbands in the central story share a personal moment contemplating the essential problem tormenting China’s youth in education and career possibilities. The Theatre Effect (剧场效应) one explains, is the phenomenon where a group of people are watching a play in a theatre when suddenly one person stands up to get a better view. This prompts the other observers to follow suit, and since there is no one around to make sure people stay seated, the whole audience now enjoys a less comfortable standing ticket. This explanation reignited talks of involution (内卷) in China, which is understood as the extremely competitive environment in work, but mainly education. For the Chinese middle class, helicopter parents (鸡娃家长) often see an existing need of intense day and night study, coupled with extra-curricular activities (培养班), as a prerequisite for their young children to stay academically competitive. From official channels, this competitiveness is usually understood because of limited resources in education due to China’s high population, but an open discussion exists when it comes to the underlying problems facing young Chinese parents and their children.

A Social Phenomenon with Market Characteristics

Neijuan (内卷) is a translation of “involution”, a term minted by Clifford Geertz to describe the small or negative growth in Javanese agricultural communities due to diminishing returns. The main issue with involution is the lack of a breakthrough which allows for economic transformation. For education this would mean the diminishing returns of publicly available education platforms, but this cannot really be the case in China. Except during the Cultural Revolution, education always held ideological importance for communist China, and after the reform and opening-up period, privatization made education more varied and accessible to suit parents’ and children’s needs. In 2002, the government put down a law granting strong state support for the private school sector, and it has been increasingly growing, comprising around one third of the total number of schools in the country. Private schools are incredibly versatile, ranging from those established in areas where public schooling is not available, to high-fee prestigious international schools preparing children for studies abroad. However, the most prestigious schools are still the more famous public schools, and even the high-fee private schools would in this case be a secondary choice, an interesting departure from a commonly held view that private beats public. However, one sector where private is king is the market of extra-curricular classes, or peiyangban (培养班). These classes have created an outlet for parents who want to make sure their children rise above the rest of the competition, which seems to be unlimited in public demand. A 2015 Program for International Student Assignment (PISA) survey showed the targeted group from elementary to middle-students spent on average twenty-seven hours a week studying outside of school, and another PISA survey in 2012 said that 70% of students were taking additional math classes. As one infamous advertisement for an extra-curricular class put it, “if you’re with us we will care for your child, if not then we will care for your child’s competitor”.

The First Step is Admitting There is a Problem

Involution then cannot be considered a case of diminishing returns, rather it must be understood as a social phenomenon with market characteristics. As others have also noted, the extreme competitiveness crystalized in the demand for extra-curricular classes is the core issue. Xiang Biao, a professor in social anthropology, and others argue that the problem is due to an expanding consumer environment that has created consent around the importance of children’s grades to the extreme. Social media and advertising have placed the private success of children in the public sphere for all to see. Not long ago, the Chinese Ministry of Education came out and said the social competition of enrolling students in middle and elementary schools need new restrictive policies. Due to the fact that even this lower level of compulsory education has become part of the hierarchical competitiveness, the ministry’s head said basing admittance on an excessive market of award ceremonies, knowledge competitions, and overall high regard for test scores is counterintuitive to creating a fair educational system. The competitive environment seems to be acknowledged and present in both public and private sectors, and the government’s recent announcements reflect an urge to keep younger children out of stress and school-fatigue.

The Elephant in the Room

One major player obsessed with high test-results was notably absent from the discussions, namely the Gaokao (高考). The Gaokao is a massive annual standardized test which determines the level university students enter tertiary education. It is widely considered the career shaping event that will make or break a child’s future. Since the Gaokao score directly determines which tier of university young students get admitted to, it must be considered a direct influence on Chinese involution and even one of the main goals of the practice. The Gaokao has long been a discussion of reform, which has led to some freedom for students’ choices of subjects of examination between social sciences and natural science. However, middle-class parents hoping for any major reform or removal of the test may be waiting in vain due to its high-popularity among other groups in lower income populations, where achieving high test results presents a major opportunity for their children to ensure a higher standard of living. As Xiang further contemplated about involution, the middle-class holds a generational fear of “missing the last bus”. The bus is a metaphor for middle-class status. Rather than actually missing the bus, middle-class parents are afraid their children’s’ failure in education will cause them to fall off the bus, while lower income groups are doing all they call to catch up and ride it towards a better tomorrow.

More Than Meets the Eye

A full understanding of involution without looking beyond the sphere of education is impossible, but it does shed some light on the system behind its prevalence. Another piece on the rigor China’s youth endures to prepare themselves would shine more light on the issues. Just as the Gaokao stands as a reminder of how certain concepts such as involution can shape our understanding of society, so does the “996” work culture of Chinese tech companies reflect the competitiveness in Chinese labor-markets. The systems that created the preconditions might have to play a larger role in the critique if they are to change. Going back to where we started, voices on the Theatre Effect often point out the lack of disciplinary supervision as a major reason for the increasing number of standing watchers. However, perhaps one should also consider the theatre as a place of work, not entertainment, who is constantly keeping their audience for an extended view without any supervision of how long it can go on. Whether the audience sit down or stand up doesn’t make much of a difference if they just have to keep watching.