BEIJING: When his iPad-toting schoolmates at Tsinghua University chatter about the foreign cities they have visited, undergraduate Wu Yanlin, 22, is silent. He has never been on a plane. The scholarship student from a village in south-western Guizhou province often feels out of place among his peers at the elite Chinese university.
By Ho Ai Li , CHINA CORRESPONDENT
Different folks, different strokes
HOW social class matters in determining the sort of classrooms children end up in:
Rich: Children of wealthy entrepreneurs and senior officials. Many of them avoid the scrum for places in China's top universities by going abroad for their studies.
Middle class: Children of professionals like teachers or engineers who live in cities. Their parents eye elite universities like Tsinghua and Peking for them as soon as they are born; they have tuition, extra-curricular lessons and the like.
Poor: Children of farmers or migrant workers. They hail from the countryside, where tuition and kindergartens are often unheard of. Some children go to the cities with their migrant worker parents but find it hard to attend regular public schools.
'They may be talking about where they flew to for leisure. We can't do the same,' he said with a rueful laugh.
But at least he made it to Tsinghua.
Fewer children from China's poorer, rural areas are making it to the country's top universities, sparking worries of slowing social mobility in the world's second- largest economy.
Though China has equal numbers of urban and rural youth, university students hailing from the city outnumber those from the country by almost five to one.
That ratio was two to one in 1980, according to figures compiled by Guangdong province's Academy of Social Sciences.
Scholars say social class is becoming more ossified, after the euphoria of the 1980s when many people became rich overnight from China's economic reforms.
The rising odds against children of humble backgrounds in higher education reflect deeper problems in Chinese society, where money and social connections - or the lack thereof - have given rise to labels such as second-generation rich (fu er dai) or second-generation poor (qiong er dai).
'Previously, those born in the 1950s and 1960s could make use of education to improve their chances (of social advancement). But for those born in the 1980s and 1990s, it's harder now,' said Peking University Graduate School of Education researcher Liu Yunshan.
Other countries ahead on the development arc have managed to progress without leaving so many behind, said Tsinghua sociologist Guo Yuhua.
'Today, a lot of people in America still hold the American dream,' she said. 'We don't even know what is the Chinese dream.'
While rural children used to make up about a third of students at the elite Peking University from 1978 to 1998, they accounted for just 10 per cent of the student body from 2000 to 2005, a study by Dr Liu found.
A Tsinghua survey showed that students from villages accounted for only 17 per cent of its intake last year, though they made up 62 per cent of the 9.57 million candidates who took the gaokao, or national college-entry exams.
Even at China Agricultural University, which would presumably have more students from rural households, only three in 10 of its incoming cohort are from farming communities.
In China, it is compulsory for children to have nine years of education from primary to junior high, with local governments bearing responsibility for implementing and funding this.
The Chinese central government's investment in education remains below 4 per cent of its gross domestic product. By comparison, the United States, Japan, South Korea and India all spend above 7 per cent of their GDP on education.
Cash-strapped rural governments simply cannot match their city cousins when it comes to spending on schools. In 2007, an average primary school pupil from a rural area received 403 yuan (S$76) of public funds for the year, while a Beijing pupil got more than seven times as much.
Many rural schools have to make do with shoddy buildings and underpaid teachers. Meanwhile, many brand-name public secondary schools in provincial capitals and big cities set up private branches and charge all kinds of fees. This often means that only the affluent can afford the 30,000 to 45,000 yuan admission fees that these schools charge.
Dubbed 'super secondary schools', they get the best teachers and students, noted Dr Jin Jun, a Tsinghua sociologist.
'They have teachers who can correctly predict which questions will come out in the gaokao,' he said.
'Students are known to shout, 'Long live teacher so-and-so' after coming out of the exam.'
Two such schools in Xi'an City alone account for up to 62 per cent of the 230 students from north-western Shaanxi province accepted by Peking and Tsinghua last year, according to a study by undergraduates at Tsinghua.
In recent years, moves to admit students based on talent and not gaokao results have also benefited children from privileged backgrounds who can afford art, music or sports lessons.
Most kids from the rural areas do not even attend preschool.
Many are also what are called liu shou er tong, or children left behind in the care of grandparents and other kin, as parents move to cities to eke out a living.
Guizhou native Wu Yanlin, for example, attended five different primary schools as he moved from one set of relatives to another while his parents worked in Beijing.
The differences between city and countryside are still stark: The middle class is gradually forming in the cities, but they are hardly seen in the countryside. Last year, urban residents had an average annual disposable income of 19,109 yuan, three times that of rural folk.
The hukou, or household registration system dating from the Maoist period, has continued to keep migrant workers on the fringes of the cities where they work. Children who follow their parents to the cities end up in ramshackle private schools as they cannot get into local public schools without the right papers.
Even if they do somehow make it to university, the value of a degree has depreciated. Back in the 1980s, children from poor families with a degree were assured of a good job a few rungs up the social ladder.
Then China expanded its university places from nearly five million in 1999 to 21.5 million in 2008.
'Because the job market is not prepared for so many graduates, competition has become very fierce,' said Dr Jin. 'You are competitive only if you are from the top universities.'
Ultimately, young people may lose all hope after realising they cannot achieve their dreams of a better life no matter how capable or hard-working they are, said Dr Jin.
'If their avenues to move up socially get blocked, they may become very angry.'
Ms Miao (back row, left) with her sister (in front) and cousins. -- PHOTO: MIAO XINGYUE
Poor start, uncertain prospects
MS Miao Xingyue, 19, loves the sea. She wanted badly to get a place in a university in Qingdao, which would give her the opportunity to live in the scenic coastal city in China's eastern Shandong province.
But she did not do well enough in the college exams and has to settle for Inner Mongolia University of Science & Technology, set up only in 2003 and based in Baotou City, in her native Inner Mongolia region.
She is going to study logistics, but is not too sure what kind of jobs she can get after graduation.
'My classmates helped me decide... they feel it may be a little easier to learn,' she said.
Unlike her richer city peers, Ms Miao, the older of two girls, did not have tuition classes or even attend kindergarten.
As her father Miao Xidong, 45, said: 'There was no kindergarten in the countryside then, though now there is one.'
The family of four gets by on about 1,500 yuan (S$280) a month, income that comes from their minimart in a township of about 200 households.
Ms Miao hardly travels outside her hometown during the school holidays. Her help is needed with household chores or at the family store. Whatever free time she has is spent on reading or listening to music.
Her parents say they do not really have time to supervise her when it comes to school work.
'We'd just remind her to study well and go to a good university,' said Mr Miao, who had three years of secondary school education.
When Ms Miao went away to a high school outside the township and had to live on her own, he called her every now and then to make sure she was doing fine.
Mr Miao is proud that his daughter is a disciplined child but acknowledges that, given their circumstances, she does not have a strong academic foundation.
'Very few rural kids make it to good universities,' he said. 'It's not easy.'
Ms Xu, 22, with mum Wang Jihong, 47, who is in the wine business. -- ST PHOTO: LINA MIAO
Studying overseas to gain edge
WHILE many Chinese students struggle with English, Chongqing native Xu Weijin, 22, is already on to her third language, French, and is good enough to pursue a degree in it.
The only child of entrepreneurs, she said she has an affinity for languages, and was drawn to France due to the romantic images it evokes.
More pragmatically, she added: 'It is advantageous to know a less common language, and this would improve my future job prospects.'
Ms Xu will be into her final year at the University of Saint Etienne in central France this autumn, and plans to stay on there to pursue her master's before returning to China to work in a finance-related field.
She considers the French system more innovative than the one back in China, with its focus on mugging and passing exams.
She estimated that her living and travelling expenses added up to around 100,000 yuan (S$18,900) last year, as she toured France as well as Spain. She does not have to pay tuition fees at her university which, like other French public universities, does not charge for tuition.
As a comparison, her yearly expenses are nearly five times as much as what an average factory worker with a monthly wage of 2,000 yuan makes in a year.
Ms Xu plans to see Italy next.
Said her mother, Madam Wang Jihong, 47, who runs a wine trading business in Chongqing city, south-west China: 'We let her go overseas to study so that she can broaden her horizons and also get used to Western culture.'
She said she sees a difference in her daughter, who has grown in self-confidence since leaving home for her studies abroad. 'We were quite worried at first about whether she could cope, but she has done well and is among the top students.'
She has never pushed her daughter too hard, and has made it a point to let her choose what she wants to do.
'We don't want her to be like other children in China, who have to go learn so many things. It's so dreadful,' she added.
Chui Hechen's parents send him for extra classes, plus coaching in English with a foreign teacher.
Eye on good college from a young age
FROM as early as primary school, Harbin native Chui Hechen, 23, was clear about his goal in life. 'I just aimed to finish the gaokao and go to a good university. That was the ultimate aim,' he said, referring to China's college entrance examination.
He got what he wanted: a place at Tsinghua, China's equivalent of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, where he completed a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, and is now reading for a master's.
His parents, both engineers, saw to it that he had a good start in the race for a place in the top colleges of the land.
'We have provided him with the best of what we can afford,' said his mother Zhang Li, of her only child.
They got him into the best kindergarten in Harbin, capital of north-eastern Heilongjiang province; they also saw to it that he had calligraphy, harmonica and English classes outside school.
Calligraphy lessons helped instil calm and focus in Hechen, said his mother.
Worried about his verbal command of English, she hired a wai jiao (foreign teacher) to coach him in the language when he was in junior high.
She would also help him with his homework whenever she had time to spare.
One set of extra-curricular classes that really paid off, she reckoned, is the maths olympiad classes that she signed him up for when he was in primary school.
'I feel that it helped stimulate the development of his intellect,' she said.
But there is more to it. In China, classes which prepare children for maths olympiads have become de rigeur for many middle-class families. Aceing these competitions means getting bonus points or even direct entry into top universities.<