Educating the Children of China’s Rich

Howard French writes of how China’s affluent are going the whole nine yards to give their kids a leg up in today’s competitive world. Paying huge sums to teach their children, how to speak English with a Western accent, how to play golf and polo, and how to eat chicken and watermelon without spitting the detritus back onto their plates, China’s wealthiest parents are funding what sounds like a thriving new industry.

Every weekday this summer, Rose Lei drove her daughter, Angelina, 5, to a golf complex at the edge of central Shanghai for a two-hour, $200 individual lesson with a teaching pro from Scotland.

But now that the school year has started, little Angelina will have to cut back on the golf, limiting herself to weekend sessions at a local driving range. In addition to her demanding school schedule, she will be attending private classes at FasTracKids, an after-school academy for children as young as 4 that bills itself as a junior M.B.A. program.

Ms. Lei, 35, a former information technology expert and the wife of a prosperous newspaper advertising executive, is part of a new generation of affluent parents here who are planning ways to cement their children’s place in a fast-emerging elite.

A generation ago, when people still dressed in monochromes and acquiring great wealth, never mind flaunting it, was generally illegal, the route to success was to join the right Communist Party youth organization or to attend one of the best universities.

Now the race starts early, with an emphasis not on ideology but on the skills and experiences the children will need in the elite life they are expected to lead. In addition to early golf training, which has become wildly popular, affluent parents are enrolling their children in everything from ballet and private music lessons, to classes in horse riding, ice-skating, skiing and even polo.

I can’t begrudge these people their success, and if I could afford it and I had children, I’d probably do the same things they’re doing. Of course, it’s hard not to compare the haves with the have-nots and to despair at the widening gulf between them. But then again, it’s a cruel, heartless and unfair world out there, especially in China, where it often seems the only way to survive is to adopt an every-man-for-himself mentality.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

I was recently invited to a wine-tasting event by a distributor of fine French and other foreign wines. At the Mission Hills golf club, I met what must be some of the top 0.1% of China’s new wealthy. In addition to their wine vocabulary (“not too fruity, with a lingering finish”), all the talk around the tables was like “While I was shopping in Paris last week…..our ranch in Australia…….” etc.

I think I’ll start a special course in the enjoyment of good cigars and single-malts. 1,000 yuan per session ought to just about cover it.

September 22, 2006 @ 1:18 am | Comment

Oh come on, this Fastrackids franchise has branches in Bangladesh and Beirut as well as Shanghai. The Chinese parents are doing nothing different from those in other newly-affluent Asian cities. Yet another Cultural Revolution-to-Capitalism -in-one -generation cliche story.

September 22, 2006 @ 2:28 am | Comment

Iron Jackal, I had to delete that comment for its obscenities and uncalled-for personal attack (to put it mildly). The sad thing is, you didn’t even read the post. I wrote,

I can’t begrudge these people their success, and if I could afford it and I had children, I’d probably do the same things they’re doing.

I also wrote that every man for himself is the law of the entire world and especially in China. I never said it was unique to China. Next time, read the text carefully, and avoid those strings of obscenities. Thanks for visiting.

Update: Oh, will wonders never cease! Iron Jackal, I see you are posting from the same server as our friend Hello! (Arabian Nights.) Good to see you still can’t stay away from my site. ๐Ÿ™‚

September 22, 2006 @ 2:30 am | Comment

I do think it’s common for parents to help their children by investing in their education–even if that education is designed to help them develop ‘cultural capital.’

But a recent study by Foreign Policy Magazine and the Fund for Peace listed China as one of the least equal societies in the world – Just barely number two to Guinea-Bissau. 1000 yuan cigar nights, trips to Paris, baby MBA programs – they are all symptoms of the great and growing divide between rich and poor in New China.

I just don’t know if a one-party system will be able to deal with such a markedly two-class society. At the risk of beating a dead horse, China’s been down this road before: Gross wealth disparities between an urban elite and the rural poor, an economy driven by foreign investment and exports, a one party government unable to come to grips with local corruption and who then used nationalism and media censorship to try and promote a unified and harmonious society.

There were even the same campaigns to promote ‘modern manners and morals’ among the Chinese like no spitting, proper hygiene, and Western table etiquette.

Now of course there are considerable differences between China in 2006 and the KMT China of 1936 (unified nation, no threat of invasion, moderate inflation, greater urbanization). But I would think any similarity to the regime they ousted 57 years ago next month would give the Masters of Zhongnanhai some pause for thought.

September 22, 2006 @ 3:50 am | Comment

Can’t wait for all the other residual problems to rear their ugly heads…kiddy Prozac, personal therapists, etc…

September 22, 2006 @ 7:42 pm | Comment

Fat Camps are already starting to appear to deal with some of the more rotund little emperors. And some of the (mostly wealthy) high school kids I taught the last couple of years had some behavioural ‘issues’.

September 23, 2006 @ 1:05 pm | Comment

i have never seen so many spoiled kids in my life, as i have in china. it becomes a real problem particularly amongst the elite’s teenage children. i had a class a couple of years ago with some disturbingly spoiled kids. all were learning english to go to british universities, and they thought the world revolved around them. maybe ive been here too long. i quit that job within a few months. some of those kids were ok, but most were a nightmare, and made the assignment unbearable.

September 23, 2006 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

What, exactly, is remarkable about teaching kids “how to speak English with a Western accent?” Isn’t it correct to teach students in the West how to speak Chinese with a Chinese accent? It’s not as if English was simultaneously homegrown in China and England/America. The technically correct way to speak English should be with a western accent. Other ways may be more “cute” or flavorful to those who like their China that way, but the western accent is the correct one.

September 24, 2006 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

mengtaide2: There is no Western accent. Most English speaking countries have a wide variety of accents, with the accent most commonly used on TV and radio taking the place of a standard. What accent are these schools teaching? BBC? TVNZ? ABC (Australia, not US)? CNN? RTE? Cockney? Geordie? Texan? Queensland? Southland? Cork? Nova Scotia?

But more importantly it shows a lot about the insecurity and ignorance of a lot of wealthy people.

Still more importantly, it shows a lot of the pressure (often utterly absurd pressure, like learning a “Western accent”) their kids are placed under, and one has to wonder what the results will be: Success? Or lots of time spent in psychiatric treatment or worse?

September 24, 2006 @ 5:36 pm | Comment

If those parents really want their kids to have an edge in speaking English, they should find some school which teachers grammar well. I don’t think accent makes a big difference to people’s perceptions, but grammar does. A Chinese person who can use well-constructed sentences in their spoken English would really stand out from their peers in a job interview. Unfortunately most Chinese schools don’t do a very good job in this regard (for that matter, Western schools don’t seem to be able to do any better).

For anyone who can discover a methodology which will enable Chinese to master English spoken grammar, there is a fortune to be made.

September 24, 2006 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

I enjoyed reading the NY Times article and having the chance to participate in this forum.

With China, it’s always the best of times and the worst of times.

Perhaps it’s due to being older and more mature, or perhaps my own increasing awareness that what has always attracted me to the country is my the weight of history over the present, but I would argue that the concept of “class” in China is both similar and different to it’s development in other developing countries.

Certainly, the rise of wealth exhibits itself in ways that are uniform across countries and times: we might discover telling insights into the consumption patterns and mindsets of China’s nouveau riche revealed in the savage attacks on bourgeois affluence in Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Henry James (just to name a few). The comedies of “manners” exemplified by Richard Sheridan is one such. Who are the new novelists of decadence and affluent anxiety today? Does Bobos in Paradise extend to China?

But more to the point, I was intrigued by the question posed by the reporter: what is driving these developments, these class cram schools? Is it, as the article suggests (and I partly agree) a fear that the next generation will not cement their success? Is it, as it was in Western Europe in the early years of the 20th century among affluent Jewish petty bourgeois merchants, who had attained a foothold in a mercantist economy, but recognized a need for Kultur? In other words, are we witnessing the striving for “culture capital” pure and simple.

More interesting, why is this need for class manifesting itself in a desire for a specifically Western model of success (golf, etiquette, manners, etc..)?

These are very difficult questions. One point I would make is that “class” cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts; it is a mode of existence encompassing behavior, self-conscious internalization of foreign modes of life, and, presumably, a high level of gaudy vulgarity, ostentation, and lavish waste.

Final question, if one of the driving impetuses (impeti?) behind this new obsession with class is the awareness that all of this can disappear so quickly, why not stock your money away in offshore banks? Perhaps class is intended to provide some more material means of solidifying one’s precarious hold on material prosperity, to create continuity, and hegemony.

September 25, 2006 @ 12:36 am | Comment

Inequality is always a feature of rapidly advancing societies. The more rapid the advance the greater the inequality.

September 25, 2006 @ 1:06 pm | Comment

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