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April 14, 2010

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Parent slaves

EVERY day Dong Fuhai rushes from work, takes a long, sweaty 90-minute bus trip, then runs to his daughter's primary school, late again at 5:20pm. He grabs her hand and walks her home, dodging cars and bikes on Beijing's West Third Ring Road.

He's often late, and 20 minutes later when they reach home, a rented flat, he immediately cooks supper, noodles and beef. Right after supper, he watches for an hour or so as Yueyue practices a solo for a violin competition. Then he checks her homework while she prepares for bed.

There's no time for bedtime stories or cuddles. The two discuss summer vacation - time for more studies - when Yueyue's mother, who is pursuing her master's degree in Canada, will come home. Then there will be another parent to share the burden and expenses of their "little princess." They talk till Yueyue falls asleep.

The daily routine starts all over again at 6:25am the next day. They must hurry to school before 7:30am, so Dong can catch a bus to work before 8am.

No weekend, no social life. Dong, a 38-year-old manager of a Beijing real estate company, feels life has never been so simple and yet so consumed as his world spins around one axis - the education of his only child.

Dong and millions of other struggling Chinese parents have become "slaves to their children," (hai nu). They work for their offspring all the time and put the child above everything else. They forget their own dreams, spend with the greatest thrift and are prudent about job-hopping that might advance their own career but be risky.

Three years ago Yueyue's mother left for Alberta, Canada, to study project management. The traditional family structure has been suspended, but the family's pursuit of a child's education is unstoppable.

Finding a good school for Yueyue is a constant source of stress for Dong.

The Dongs moved from the south of the city to the northwestern Haidian District three months ago to be closer to Yueyue's school. They only spend weekends at the cozy three-bedroom home they own in the south.

Dong has given up on buying a flat near the school as housing prices have increased by more than 30 percent since last spring.

"The rent of 3,000 yuan (US$440) a month is a little steep for us, but proximity to school is worth it to let Yueyue have at least one more hour of sleep," Dong says.

The cost of Yueyue's six years of primary education might exceed 40,000 yuan, almost four times his annual income. In the hope that she can display more talent than her peers and enter a better school, Dong has been sending her to painting, dancing and chess classes since she was four, even on weekends.

Dong's great love and good intentions, however, aren't fully appreciated by the "princess of the family." She sometimes defies him and was even beaten once for trying to give up daily violin practice.

"You started a game and you have to play it until the end," says Dong. "I can't change the rules of the game now, so I have to follow it."

"Investment in a child is not like buying stocks. It must be paid back in the future," he says. "Besides, I'm just one drop in the ocean."

The growing group of "parent slaves" has generated a fierce debate on the maladies of China's high-pressure, test-based education system, with its high costs, imbalances and excessive workloads.

Everywhere in China, the Internet is filled with posts from distressed parents about the rising cost of raising a child through college. Many clamor for government assistance for weary parents, while some call for calm and say the protests are exaggerated.

The Chinese government has launched a series of education reforms since the 1990s, building more schools and expanding enrollment to ensure more people are educated.

However, dissatisfaction outweighs appreciation for the reforms, according to a survey released on March 9 by the Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group.

The survey polled 1,054 people aged 18 to 60 from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Almost 51 percent of those interviewed expressed discontent with the reforms, and more than 58 percent called for a fairer educational environment. The unbalanced distribution of high-quality educational resources is their top concern.

Dong shares the worry. In his district in south Beijing, some primary schools face the embarrassment of "student shortages," whereas better schools in western districts complain they receive too many applications.

"It's no wonder students and their families migrate to the west because good teachers and good schools are all there," says Dong. "The government should give more assistance to underdeveloped schools to improve their facilities and teaching quality."


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