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Why China is putting greater emphasis on fitness and sports

China's campaign to reduce the burden of homework and after-school tuition for children is creating a boom for sports clubs

China's campaign to reduce the burden of homework and after-school tuition for kids is creating a boom for sports and arts clubs.
China's campaign to reduce the burden of homework and after-school tuition for kids is creating a boom for sports and arts clubs. (AFP)

President Xi Jinping’s campaign to reduce the burden of homework and after-school tuition for Chinese kids is creating a boom for sports and arts clubs. China Central Television reported that 33,000 arts and sports outlets were launched in just over a month after the government published its “Double Reduction” document in late July, which banned academic tutoring during weekends and holidays and ordered schools to reduce both the amount and time needed for assignments.

The government clampdown, which would help re-balance China’s labour force, and improve health, has sent parents scrambling to find alternative classes that would still give their children an advantage in the nation’s intensely competitive education and labour market.

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“I’ve had phone calls from parents inquiring about kids’ courses almost every day recently,” said He Jianwei, who owns an eponymous boxing club in east Beijing. “After all, children can’t be too weak if the nation aspires to be strong.”

On a windy Sunday afternoon in October, children wearing boxing gloves and shin guards are sweating in the club as they punch and kick pads held by coaches, hissing “shee” with each strike to amplify the effect. The school has been teaching adults martial arts such as Thai boxing, wrestling and Brazilian Jiujitsu since 2013 and began providing regular classes for children as young as four a year ago. 

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Sitting on a couch in the reception area, Jenny Liu waits for her seven-year-old son to finish his session. “The Double Reduction policy gave us time for exercise,” said the 39-year-old mother, who put him into the class last month, shortly after the company that provided his math tuition was shut down. “Guoguo comes three times a week unless he’s sick.”

China’s Tiger moms aren’t enrolling their children just to give them something to do. The weighting of arts and sports in school tests is rising. The government has pledged to “gradually increase” the score of sports in the senior high school entrance exam, and regions such as the southern province of Hainan have listed swimming, soccer, basketball and volleyball as options for students to get additional credits.

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The effort to rein in academic excess reflects an imbalance in China’s labour market. As Chinese households became more affluent, parents prioritized schoolwork over physical development, deeming blue-collar jobs punishment for those who aren’t hard-working or smart enough. That created a boom for colleges and private tutors. 

Now, millions more students graduate from universities every year, and many can’t find a job that fits their qualifications. The number of university graduates has ballooned to nearly 8 million last year, more than 30% up on a decade ago, according to Bloomberg calculations using data from the Ministry of Education.

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In addition, the country’s young people are increasingly suffering from obesity, myopia and depression. More than half of China’s school children are short-sighted and nearly one in five between the ages of 6-17 is overweight or obese, National Health Commission data show. 

The government plans to get almost 20 million more people to participate in regular exercises within five years, and to make sure every county and community has gym equipment. The change in emphasis could help China’s manufacturing and industrial sectors by diverting more students to training that would fill a shortfall of skilled factory workers. The authorities have made it clear they want enrollment in secondary vocational schools to be roughly equivalent to that of regular high schools. Currently, around 57% of middle-school graduates go on to senior high schools, education ministry figures show.

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That has raised concerns among parents that more children would miss the chance of sitting entrance exams for a coveted university place. Worse still, for those that switch to vocational training, the shift toward artificial intelligence and automation in industry could eventually diminish prospects for factory workers whose skills become redundant. 

Yet Xi’s reform of the education industry is not just about economics. He has made no secret of the fact that he views his time working on a remote farm in China’s poor northwest during the Cultural Revolution as a valuable experience. “I was perplexed and hesitant when I came to the land of yellow earth at the age of 15,” he was quoted as saying in a China National Radio report in 2018. “By the time I left at 22, I was confident with a firm goal in life.”

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An avid soccer fan, Xi has said he wants the next generation to “civilize the spirit and toughen the body,” as the nation implements the 2017 Communist Party action plan to create a world power by the middle of this century.

“The desire for toughness fits well with the Party’s call for mass mobilization for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said David Zweig, a professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s also very Maoist, like Mao’s famous poem about standing in the blowing rain when he was 17 years old. A united, powerful China can overcome all obstacles.” The new education priorities include the arts, and Xi has called on writers and artists to pursue “professional excellence and moral integrity.” 

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For China’s parents, the changes mean finding alternatives to academic courses that would still further their children’s chances of landing a good job, or, for those who can pay for it, private tutors. “I’m afraid the gap could get even wider as the elite families can afford one-on-one tutoring privately,” said Guoguo’s mother. 

Still, she hopes boxing will help her shy boy become stronger, healthier and more out-going. “I’d like him to be able to protect himself from being bullied by others,” she said. “I don’t want him to work in a factory -- that would be too back-busting.”

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