China’s education crackdown forces ‘anxious’ parents to rethink immigration, foreign-study options for kids


By He HuifengJane Cai

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Amid the pandemic and geopolitical tensions with the West over the past two years, members of China’s middle class found themselves increasingly compelled to postpone plans to emigrate overseas, while others refrained from sending their children abroad to study.

But as a growing number of international schools in China have announced in recent months that they were shutting down or were accepting only foreign students in the wake of a nationwide crackdown on education, obtaining a Western-equivalent education at home has become more difficult.

As a result, a rising number of Chinese families are re-evaluating their emigration and foreign-study options.

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Industry insiders also say there has been increased demand for Canadian immigration programmes, as well as for fast-track schemes to obtain foreign citizenship via investment opportunities in some small European countries and island nations.

Daisy Fu, who is based in Shenzhen and helps Chinese people obtain Malta citizenship, said business is up 20 per cent in the past two months. “Most of the clients are parents who are anxious about the new education policy,” she said.

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Canada’s Immigrant Nominee Programme may also become a popular and practical solution for worried Chinese parents.

“The number of Chinese families applying for professional immigration to Canada will reach a new high in 2022,” said Jack Ho, chairman of Famed Star Group, an international consulting company helping clients immigrate to Canada.

“Whether they are high-net-worth individuals or middle-class white-collar workers, the rapid changes in China’s policies on education, property and wealth markets have prompted them to urgently start their immigration programmes as soon as possible,” Ho said.

In the past, around 95 per cent of families would opt to wait in China until obtaining their permanent residency in Canada, he said. But in recent months, that percentage has plummeted, and he said more than half of his customers told him that they wanted to move to Canada immediately upon receiving a work permit, so their children could begin school there more quickly.

He said his company has assisted with the Canadian immigration process for more than 1,000 families since 2017. This year, he expects their annual business could reach a record high, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.

Under President Xi Jinping, ideological control has been tightened as the Communist Party tries to instil patriotism in younger generations and stifle dissent. In May, China passed new regulations tightening party oversight of private schools and restricting foreign players in the sector.

For years, Xi denounced the after-school tutoring sector as disruptive, burdensome and in need of regulation. That culminated in Beijing introducing tough new curbs on the lucrative private-education sector last year, despite strong demand from middle-class families for foreign education.

Under the Regulations for the Implementation of the Private Education Promotion Law, no new licences will be granted to international schools offering compulsory education – six years of primary education followed by three years of junior high school education. Chinese-run private schools teaching compulsory education are also banned from using foreign textbooks, though private schools teaching grades 10-12 can continue offering international curriculums.

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“Two of my children had been attending an international school in Chengdu that used Singaporean textbooks and had a Western teaching style, with baseball lessons and other foreign languages,” said Zhang Na, who runs a tech-and-culture start-up in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

“The tuition ran about 70,000 yuan (US$11,000) a year, and I was very happy with everything the school offered, but it closed this semester due to a sudden change in policy, so I had to temporarily transfer my sons to a private local school that teaches only a Chinese curriculum.”

Zhang said her sons became extremely stressed amid the fierce competition and pressure to excel in examinations.

“I once set aside my wish to immigrate, but now I may have to put it back on the agenda for my children,” she said.

In December, international schools in Shenzhen – including the Bay Academy, Shenzhen Harrow Innovation Leadership Academy and the King’s School Shenzhen International – which had previously enrolled Chinese students, announced that they would either close or pivot their business model to focus on only foreign students.

And in November, one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools, Westminster School, said it would abandon its first overseas school in Chengdu, four years after the project had begun.

The school had ambitious plans to open six bilingual institutions in China, but “recent changes in Chinese education policy” forced the school to axe the entire project, according to Mark Batten, chair of the school’s governing body.

“It is highly unfortunate – the landscape for developing such schools now is very different from 2017,” Batten said in a letter to past and current students and staff.

In Beijing, education authorities are also pushing ahead with curriculum reform in private bilingual schools by requiring students to use Chinese textbooks adopted by public schools, and to take compulsory exams – known as the zhong kao – for admission to public senior high schools.

The Beijing World Youth Academy, with more than 1,200 students aged 5 to 18, complied with the mandate last year by requiring its grade 9 students to sit the exam – the first time the academy had done so in its 20 years.

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A faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity said the school had integrated subjects required by China’s statutory curriculum, such as Chinese language courses and maths to its Middle Years Programme – an International Baccalaureate programme requiring students aged 11 to 16 to study eight subject groups: two languages, humanities, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical education and technology.

“By doing so, we can help students acquire a [junior middle school] graduation certificate and an academic track record acknowledged by Chinese authorities,” the staff member said.

According to implementation regulations outlined in the Private Education Promotion Law, which went into effect in September, private schools can develop their own curriculums based only “on the standards of the state curriculum”. And the curriculums must be submitted to education authorities first. Students in grades 1-9 are also not allowed to be taught from foreign textbooks.

“More schools offering international curriculums are expected to require students to sit the zhong kao, as China is unifying admission standards for private and public senior high schools,” said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute. “But regardless, international schools will only use zhong kao performance as a reference.”

As we are determined to go to a university in the UK, preparing for and sitting domestic exams is really unnecessary
Susan Li, mother in Beijing

Stephen Wang, the father of a grade 8 student at the Beijing World Youth Academy, said that although the zhong kao requirement has doubled his daughter’s workload, the academy’s inclusion in the national academic system may benefit her career in the future.

“My daughter makes painstaking efforts to study two sets of subjects. However, it may prove worth it someday. After returning from overseas, she’ll have the freedom to choose to develop a career in China,” said Wang, a 48-year-old private entrepreneur.

Susan Li, the mother of a grade 6 student at an international school in Beijing, said: “Our school hasn’t announced whether it will make the exams compulsory. But I’m afraid it will come sooner or later with the government’s tightened scrutiny of private schools.”

Nonetheless, the 45-year-old corporate executive said, “it would be a waste of time”.

“As we are determined to go to a university in the UK, preparing for and sitting domestic exams is really unnecessary,” Li said.

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