With all the talk of dragon economies, vast American debt ownership and “the Chinese century”, it can be easy to forget that China is a human society like any other. Western nightmares are full of images of Tiananmen squares in every European and American city – of sad, enslaved white faces rifling through black rain for Yuan and pictures of Mao on the walls of all our children's schools.
Of course, all this may come to pass, but that doesn't mean all the problems within China’s borders will be suddenly magicked away. The country’s economic boom, coupled with much talk of the benefits of hard graft, has created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But, due in part to the unchecked growth of China's free-market economy, that's not necessarily the case.
In 1999, the creation of privately owned universities was sanctioned in China. At this time, fewer than ten percent of 18 to 22-year-olds were enrolled in higher education. Now, that figure is around 30 percent. In his film, Education, Education, the director Weijun Chen delves into the dark realities of private university education in his homeland. Far from offering students a reasonable alternative to state education, the majority of these private institutions – which charge double what state colleges charge – are designed simply to make money from kids who haven't done well enough to get into more prestigious places, fucking people over for no return.
The film follows Wang Zehziang, a tutor at the private Hongbo College who goes around the country trying to con poor students into being taught by him using pictures of classrooms taken from the internet and tapes of actors pretending to have benefited from their time at his college. We also hear the story of Wang Pan, a high school graduate from a strikingly poor rural area, whose disabled parents desperately try to raise money to send her to a private college that will, unbeknownst to them, take their money and leave their daughter with nothing in exchange.
Finally, we look at Wan Chao, a graduate job seeker who mopes from one desperate interview to another. His CV tells the world that he has gone from being “a boy who blindly chases his dreams to a man who is now realising them”. The reality of his life is more crying on the stairs outside a bar, sleeping during the day because he’s depressed and being shouted at for not knowing how to use Excel. Which might sound like a perfectly normal working week for you, but there's something about Wan Chao that makes his story sadder than the saddest Replacements song.
It’s a brilliant film, so I got in touch with Weijun Chen to talk about it.
VICE: Hi Weijun, could you tell me a little bit about the rise of private universities in China?
Weijun Chen: Before 1999, all Chinese colleges were set up and controlled by the Chinese government. Since 1999, the Education Department has decided to promote education as a commercial venture. This means that it encourages private capital to set up private colleges, which are then run like a company. Some of them are pure private colleges and some of them are national universities co-funded by private capital to form an independent institute. As of 2011, there were around 1,400 private colleges. The vast majority of them are like Hongbo College, which was featured in the film.
How well do you have to do in your exams to go to a good state university?
If you're the child of a peasant, you have very little chance of going to a good state university because you have no money to pay for the Mathematical Olympiad. So you don't enter a good middle school or a good high school. There are no good teachers and no good schools in the rural areas because the high quality resources are gathered in cities. Chinese society is divided into two groups – there are peasants and there are people who live in towns, and they each have different ID documents.
How do the ID documents differ?
The ID citizens in towns carry has all the social security benefits. Peasants' and farmers' IDs carry nothing. Also, students from rural areas have no rights to go to schools in the city, so it's very difficult for them to pass the state colleges' entrance exam. That means that, if they want to go to university, they have to go to private universities, which are more expensive and not nearly as good.
If you don't go to university, what chances of getting a good job do you have?
It's difficult to find a good job if you don't graduate from a state college, because everyone knows exactly what the private colleges are about. They know that these colleges provide expensive tuition but a low quality education. Graduates of private colleges pick up lower salaries than migrant workers.
There's a tutor in your film – Wang Zehziang – who works for Hongbo College, a private institution that lied to its potential students and was closed down. Are there lots of colleges like Hongbo that lie to their students?
Yes, because there are so many private colleges and their aim is earn money, so they compete with each other to scramble students. A student simply means an amount of money.
He talks about how guilty he feels selling a lie. Why did he keep doing it? Was he ever honest with the people he was conning?
I think he's an honest man and he found it very painful to do his job. But, you know, the work he's doing is legal in China.
Yeah, it’s not like lying isn’t part of a lot of people’s jobs here, to be fair. How does this system of education fit in with the proclaimed socialism of the Chinese state? At one point, one of your characters says that China “has lost all communist ideals and principles”.
Yeah, I don't think it fits in with the socialist system at all. I think the education system must be fair to everyone, no matter what social class they're from. We must give hope to the people at the bottom so they can change their destiny.
Do you believe that inequality has increased because of these colleges?
Yes, I do. And if majorities of people feel totally hopeless, it's dangerous to society.
Will the Chinese government do anything about the situation? Has anyone from the government seen or commented on the film?
A lot of people are discussing the problem on the internet, but the official media seldom talk about it. No one in the government has watched the film until now because the world premiere is at this year's, which has only just started. That also means that no one in China has seen the film.
In the West, we think of China as doing very well economically. Is that a myth?
No, it isn't, really. Although, we've lost everything we had except for the economy.
Wow, that's very bleak. Thanks Weijun.
Dochouse are showing Education, Education as part of a Why Poverty? double bill today (November 15th) at 8PM at the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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If We Don't Fix Our Economy, Europe Will Become China's Disneyland