During the summer break, Beijing handed down a parade of new regulations designed to intervene in youth education and entertainment, including a strike against private tutoring, a campaign to "cleanse" the internet and a strict limit on online game playing time for children. But so far, these seemingly iron-clad rules have met their match, with students and their parents quickly finding workarounds.
Grassroots citizens in China are experienced at cooking up countermeasures when Beijing or governments come down with rigid policies. Authorities then have to play defense, amending holes in their initial rules.
Here are the most ingenious methods Chinese citizens have created (so far) to circumvent recent restrictions on off-campus tutoring and online gaming time for the country's youth.
How to bypass the private tutoring ban
The central government rolled out strict policy guidelines in July, ostensibly to reduce the burden of education for primary school and junior high students. Beijing's new rules prevent private tutoring institutions from offering curricular-based education on weekends, on national holidays and during school breaks. They also cannot offer any online classes to preschoolers. Offline subject-based tutoring for preschoolers, including language classes, is strictly prohibited.
Chinese parents' deep-rooted anxiety over education inequality and the highly competitive nature of the national university entrance exam, or gaokao, has fueled a private tutoring bonanza. China has 240 million K-12 students, with their families willing to spend an average of 11% of annual family expenses on trying to secure their children's future success.
But the new tutoring bans, which observers believe are designed to address education inequality, are unlikely to ease parents' anxiety. Though some applaud the ed tech and private tutoring crackdowns, many others believe the stakes are too high for their children to stay out of the rat race. So for many students, with their parents' cleverly dodging private tutoring bans, the schooling burden has not eased — it has gotten heavier.
Countermeasure no. 1: Hire live-in tutors and call them "nannies"
On Sept. 6, Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily reported that some tutoring agencies have packaged live-in teachers as "new domestic workers," emphasizing that they are not responsible for household chores, but instead tasked with taking care of their children's education. One job posting seeking a live-in tutor for a five-year-old requires candidates to be English majors or to have studied abroad to offer the child an "immersive English environment."
Of course, only affluent households can pursue this workaround. The Southern Metropolis Daily reported that live-in tutors' monthly salary ranges between the equivalent of $1,536 and $4,640. That compares favorably with China's monthly per-capita disposable income — $2,728 in the first six months of 2021.
Countermeasure no. 2: Move private tutoring online, and after school
Many Chinese parents have moved off-campus classes that were scheduled on weekends to weekdays for their children, since the new rules do not ban curricular-based classes that happen during the week.
Some parents have chosen online classes in order to fit their own busy schedules. One parent to a second-grader told Zhoushan Evening Newspaper, a daily published in the coastal city of Zhoushan in Zhejiang province, that their child is now taking Chinese and math on Tuesday and Friday evenings online. "It's too much of a hassle for a dual-income family to make dinner after work and then send the kid to tutoring classes." But this is not the most ideal plan for the kid: It's past 8 p.m. when they are done with after-school classes, and there's additional prep and review to do for each class.
A Weibo user shared similar concerns, depicting junior high students rushing directly to tutoring classes after school in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui province. "They can't have dinner until after 8:30 p.m., and then they'll have to finish homework from school. When are they supposed to go to bed?"
Countermeasure no. 3: Make a change in name but not in substance
Several parents have posted on Weibo that instead of advertising those classes as private tuition, tutoring organizations are now calling them "weekend care" programs or sessions aimed at answering students' questions. One parent shared a photo of an ongoing weekend class on Weibo, with the caption, "We are here to do homework, not to have a class."
To avoid inspections, one agency in the Southeastern Chinese city of Fuzhou has gone to great lengths. An undercover video clip circulating on the Chinese web shows classroom windows papered over while tutoring continues inside.
Other tutoring agencies have rejiggered course names to mask the nature of the classes. Unable to offer disciplinary classes, they've packaged the private classes in the form of the so-called "well-rounded education." A leaked notice sent to parents by a tutoring company shows that the firm has renamed Chinese "sinology literacy," math "logical thinking" and English "Western literature."
Authorities have taken note of the workarounds. On Sept. 9, the Ministry of Education issued a new policy document that required local education authorities to clamp down on "underground" and "disguised" tutoring.
How to bypass game time limits
Beijing has now cut online gaming hours for players under 18 to three hours per week. Tencent, the biggest game company in the world, adopted facial recognition technology earlier this summer to kick underage gamers off games once it detects anyone who has clocked excessive play time. But on the first weekend after the new time limits took effect, Tencent's hit game Honor of Kings was overwhelmed by a sudden traffic increase.
Countermeasure no. 1: Rent an adult account
Underage gamers can easily rent out other people's gaming accounts via online marketplaces. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on Sept. 6 that underage gamers can buy two hours' worth of playing time on Tencent's hit game Honor of Kings for the equivalent of $5. Following instructions provided by sellers, they can log in without triggering the age authentication process.
A black market exists offline, too. Legal Daily, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, reported last week that students can not only rent game accounts from corner stores and bubble tea shops near their schools, but they can rent cell phones for gaming for less than one U.S. dollar an hour.
Countermeasure no. 2: Pay for an adult to enter a game
Those with deeper pockets are able to buy accounts that are linked to adult IDs and pay for an adult to scan their face at the initial registration (about $19) as well as every time they log in afterward (about $3), according to the Legal Daily.
Authorities have already started to crack down on game account rental services catering to underage players. On Sept. 16, a national online reporting platform designed to prevent youth game addiction started a trial run. The website allows citizens to send tips about any gaming company that violates anti-addiction regulations.
The cat-and-mouse game goes on. Expect news of ever-more-inventive workarounds, and a slate of new measures from Beijing to patch holes in its rules.