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China Takes Aim at Educational Costs as It Seeks to Reverse Birthrate Decline

China is planning new policies to rein in rising education costs seen as deterring couples from having more children, according to people familiar with the matter, as Beijing confronts a worsening demographic outlook.

Among the measures are new laws and tighter regulations aimed at private education companies that offer tutoring services, which have been blamed for fueling competition and increasing education costs for urban families. New restrictions would, for example, curb private lessons during school holidays, the people said.

Separately, Beijing policy makers are discussing measures to tamp down real estate frenzies that have sprung up in desirable school districts in China’s wealthy cities, adding educational anxieties to a housing market that many officials fear is overheated, according to two of the people.

Taken together, the policies are intended to blunt two trends seen as driving up the perceived cost of education for many Chinese families, which is in turn regarded as an obstacle discouraging couples from having more children.

Nurses working at a maternity hospital in Wuhan. A census has shown that China is on the cusp of a historic turning point in its population.

Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images

Decades of birth restrictions have led many Chinese families to invest their hopes—and much of their savings—into improving their children’s prospects. As incomes rise, that has fueled an arms race on private tutoring classes as more students compete for scarce placements at top schools.

The hypercompetitive system, largely confined to China’s wealthiest cities, has stoked concerns about limited opportunities for advancement in the poorer countryside—a priority for Beijing after declaring the elimination of extreme poverty last year.

At stake for Beijing is ensuring that education, an increasingly combustible social issue, remains under the firm control of the state, after a year in which private education companies quickly expanded with big investments from China’s large technology companies.

Looming in the background are fresh concerns over China’s demographic outlook, which has quickly jumped to the top of Beijing’s political agenda. During a meeting of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo last month, Chinese Leader Xi Jinping described the nation’s falling birthrate as a potential threat to its national security.

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A once-in-a-decade census published last month showed China on the cusp of a historic turning point in its population, as its working-age population shrinks and the number of older Chinese people balloons. Weeks later, Beijing said it would allow all married couples to have up to three children, and policy makers are now weighing whether to scrap birth restrictions altogether, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

In announcing its new birth regulations, Beijing said that it would also provide government support for education and child rearing, without elaborating.

In recent weeks, however, Chinese officials and regulators have made clear that it regards private-sector education—in particular, after-school tutoring companies—and real estate speculation around school-district housing as impediments to its goals.

The campaign against private education in particular has been picking up steam, after Mr. Xi this month called on officials to draw up regulations on the sector. One week later, the Education Ministry took the unusual move of setting up an office dedicated to regulating after-school tutoring.

The ministry has also enacted new restrictions on homework loads for elementary and junior high schools, instituted a new licensing regime for teachers at private cram schools and laid out detailed guidelines for after-school activities.

Next month, officials are planning to roll out new curbs on online and offline private tutoring during school holidays for students aged between 6 and 18 in some large cities, according to people familiar with the matter. If successful, the program will be expanded to other parts of the country, the people said. Reuters reported earlier on the plans.

Meanwhile, China’s powerful State Administration for Market Regulation, which is spearheading the current antimonopoly drive against the country’s technology sector, has slapped millions of dollars’ worth of fines on more than a dozen educational startups backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , Tencent Holdings Ltd. and others.

Tencent declined to comment, while Alibaba and the Education Ministry didn’t reply to requests for comment.

China’s hypercompetitive education system is largely confined to the wealthiest cities such as Beijing.


While officials have cited allegations of fraud in imposing the fines, people familiar with the regulatory campaign say officials are more broadly concerned about tutoring services giving wealthier students an insurmountable advantage and contributing to societal angst that has squelched couples’ desire for more children.

Cram schools have proliferated across China as it grows wealthier and as fertility rates drop, increasing school competition—echoing trends in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

More than 75% of Chinese students between first and 12th grade attended after-school tutoring classes in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Chinese Society of Education, a government-backed think tank. That figure is believed to have only risen further in the past five years.

In Beijing, families are shelling out hundreds and even thousands of dollars each month for after-school tutors, fearing their children will fall behind.

Xie Weina, a 41-year-old Beijing mother, spends roughly $1,500 each month for her 10-year-old son to attend two essay writing classes, three online and one offline English classes and one math class each week after school, as well as basketball and soccer on the weekends.

Ms. Xie said her son’s schedule can hardly compare with those of his classmates, whose parents are driven, she said, by “a herd mentality of fear and anxiety.”

She added that “parents in big Chinese cities are working for the educational centers.”

Though she thinks competition has gotten out of hand, Ms. Xie is wary of governmental efforts to ban private classes during school vacations, fearing that working parents like herself will instead wind up with unchaperoned children playing videogames all day.

Authorities have also taken aim at runaway prices for homes near well-regarded public schools, where owning property can give parents a boost in landing a placement for their children.

In recent years, state-media news articles have described families who pay the equivalent of millions of dollars for closet-sized apartments near top-ranked schools. Expectant parents have hired consultants to identify neighborhoods with possible new schools, in hopes of securing a nearby apartment unit in time for their not-yet-born children to enroll in the not-yet-built school.

In response, Beijing has in recent weeks shut down property agencies that promote homes based on proximity to in-demand schools, which they fear could exacerbate a homebuying panic.

To sever the connection between homeownership and access to a well-regarded education, China’s Education Ministry has also begun drafting a plan to expand a pilot program in Shanghai that allows teachers to rotate from one school to another, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is unclear whether the new policies will make much of a difference in encouraging more births. In China’s biggest cities, new births have been far lower than in rural areas as young urban couples postpone childbirth amid rising economic pressures. In the capital, Beijing, the number of new births peaked in 2017 and has declined steadily since then, dropping to a 10-year low last year.

This Week in China

WSJ coverage of the region, selected by the editors.

—Grace Zhu contributed to this article.

Write to Keith Zhai at [email protected]

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