September 22, 2006
In China, Children of the Rich Learn Class, Minus the Struggle
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, Sept. 21 — 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.
The intense interest in lifestyle training speaks not just to parents’ concern for their children’s futures but also to a general sense of social insecurity among China’s newly rich.
“These people are rich economically but lacking in basic manners, and they are not very fond of their own reputation,” said Wang Lianyi, an expert in comparative cultural studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. Of the 35 million Chinese who traveled overseas last year, he said, many were shocked to discover that they were often viewed as having bad manners.
To address that, some of the newly affluent, like Ms. Lei, take their young children for extended stays overseas. London and New York are popular choices, because the children can get a head start on speaking Western-accented English.
Others are signing up for finishing schools popping up in China, which promise to train youngsters how to become proper ladies and gentlemen in the highest Western tradition.
The best known of these programs is run by a bluntly spoken Japanese woman, June Yamada, who charges about $900 for a two-week course that includes a brief stay at a five-star hotel here. Teenagers must bathe before dinner, take afternoon tea, wear formal dress and relearn how to walk, how to eat, how to dance and how to engage politely with members of the opposite sex.
“I don’t just teach them what to do and what not to do, I teach the girls how to be women, and the boys how to be men,” said Ms. Yamada, a former fashion writer who wrote a popular book on manners here. “We’re probably the most expensive school in Shanghai, but nobody is complaining and they keep coming back, so we must be doing something right.”
Ms. Yamada said she insisted that a parent attend the classes with any student she accepted, “because if the parent is spitting watermelon seeds or chicken bones right out of their mouth at home, what is the use of all the fine things we are teaching?”
It is hard to say how many Chinese have the money to lavish such attention on their children, but the limited number of surveys that have been done and anecdotal evidence indicate that the number is exploding.
Gao Ruxi of Shanghai Jiao Tong University conducted research in 2003 that showed that 15.4 percent of the city’s 17 million people — about 2.6 million — were rich enough to own a house and a vehicle.
Another report, from a Chinese research group called Horizon, estimated that in 2003 there were 569,000 families or individuals in Shanghai with liquid assets of at least $62,500.
FasTracKids, which started in Shanghai in 2004, has since opened two more outlets here and another in Guangzhou, and it is planning a fifth in Hangzhou.
The private program’s after-school sessions are held in brightly decorated classrooms, where fewer than a dozen children, typically 4 or 5 years old, are taught by as many as three teachers. The program emphasizes scientific learning, problem solving and, most attractively for many parents, assertiveness.
“Parents like myself are worrying about China becoming a steadily more competitive society,” said Zhong Yu, 36, a manufacturing supervisor whose wife is a senior accountant with an international firm and whose 7-year-old son has been enrolled in the junior M.B.A. classes. “Every day we see stories in the newspapers about graduates unable to find good jobs. Education in China is already good in the core subjects, but I want my son to have more creative thinking, because basic knowledge isn’t sufficient anymore.”
Mr. Zhong said that for all of their high salaries, he and his wife had very demanding jobs with little leisure time, and the bottom line for them was “wanting our son to have a better life than we have had.”
To some extent, the trend is driven by a collision of rising affluence and China’s one-child policy, which forces parents to focus all their energy and resources on a single child. But experts say there is more at work, that it reflects fear of a new kind of rat race, in which the entire society is hustling for advancement.
“At the top of the pyramid will be exceptionally strong graduates from top American or European universities who become a sort of ‘international freemen,’ ” said Qiu Huadong, an author and editor who has written about the new elite. “They work several years in China, and then they go abroad for a while, shifting locations every few years. At the bottom of the pyramid will be those who didn’t get such an outstanding education, and they’ll be sweating and bleeding for China and globalization.”
Other experts say that for many others, the grooming schools, study abroad and lessons in elite sports like golf and polo are as much about a gnawing sense of social insecurity as they are about getting ahead.
“Americans respect people who came from nothing and made something of themselves, and they also respect rich people,” Mr. Wang added. “In China, people generally don’t respect rich people, because there is a strong feeling that they are lacking in ethics. These new rich not only want money, they want people to respect them in the future.”
Indeed, some of the newly well-to-do have broadened their quest for respectability, enlisting their children in charity activities at the same time as they push them into classes aimed at getting them ahead.
Shan Lei, 31, a homemaker and former investment specialist whose husband is a shipping executive, said the family had invested $100,000 in a golf-club membership and had introduced her daughter to the sport, along with piano and skating lessons. They also manage to squeeze in charity work with AIDS orphans.
“Golf is played by the upper classes, but I want her to recognize there is social diversity,” said Ms. Lei, who is not related to Rose Lei. “I want her to care for others in the society.”
But there is little question that the driving force for most parents is the challenge of succeeding in an increasingly competitive society.
“My childhood was completely different from my daughter’s,” Rose Lei said. “We didn’t have things like FasTracKids or golfing, and that is why we want her to have those opportunities.” Asked if she had other motives, like ensuring that her daughter joins the ranks of China’s affluent class, she did not miss a beat. “Yes, this is very important,” she said.