The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Friday signaled it would press ahead with a crackdown on private tuition schools and other practices requiring financial input from parents in a bid to encourage couples to have more children.
In an economic work meeting on Friday, the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee called on governments across China to implement the "three-child" family planning policy, and "improve supporting policies relating to childbirth, parenting, and education," state news agency Xinhua reported.
The communique came after the CCP Central Committee General Office and the State Council set out a slew of measures aimed at slashing homework and out-of-hours educational activities.
"No new subject-based off-campus training institutions are being approved for students in compulsory education, while existing subject-based training institutions will be registered as non-profit institutions," the "opinion" said.
"Subject-based tutoring institutions are not allowed to be listed for financing, and capitalization operations are strictly prohibited," it said, ordering local authorities to set up supervisory bodies to monitor the behavior of tutoring schools, known as buxiban.
"Training institutions must not organize subject-based tutoring on national statutory holidays, rest days, or winter and summer vacations," the directive said.
Instead, schools are to strengthen after-school services, and funding for such operations must be plowed back into meeting costs, it said.
It also called for a ban on media, billboard, or online advertisements for tutoring.
The plan will initially be rolled out in nine regions, including Beijing, as a pilot scheme, the directive said.
The move comes amid growing concern in China over a phenomenon dubbed the "chicken baby" syndrome, referring to parents dosing their children up with chicken-based food supplements to boost stamina for all of the extra hours of study they expect of them.
More than 75 percent of students in primary and secondary education attended after-school tutoring in 2016, the most recent industry figures showed, and the need to hothouse children privately to get them into the best schools was criticized by CCP leader Xi Jinping in March as a barrier to boosting birth rates.
On June 15, the Ministry of Education set up a new department to monitor off-campus education and training provision, to implement "reforms to the off-campus education and training sector."
And the State Administration for Market Regulation announced on June 1 it would be "rectifying" tutoring services run by internet giants Tencent and Alibaba, fining the companies around U.S.$5.73 million for regulatory violations.
The moves come after a March 6 speech by CCP general secretary Xi Jinping, who hit out at "chaos" in the tutoring industry, calling it "a stubborn disease that is hard to manage."
"On the one hand, there is the desire for children to have a happy childhood, and enjoy physical and mental health," Xi told education sector delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
"On the other, there is the fear that children won't be starting at the same point in the competition for good grades," he said, according to a March 18 commentary in the official People's Daily newspaper, also carried by state news agency Xinhua.
"The rectification and regulation of the private tutoring market must be strengthened so as to reduce the burden on students ... and to avoid undermining fairness in the public education sector," it said.
Independent economist Si Ling said the CCP wants to reduce the overall cost of parenting, to encourage families to have more kids.
"Only the Chinese government has the political will to bring in such a comprehensive package of measures," Si told RFA.
But he said the crackdown on tutoring may not be enough.
"[It would also need] welfare measures that allow parents to reduce costs, including free medical care," he said.
Costs passed on to parents
Current affairs commentator Fang Yuan said it is still unclear whether public schools will be expected to offer out-of-hours tuition to students in future.
If so, it is likely schools will seek to pass at least some of those costs on to parents eventually, he said.
"Far from reducing the economic burden on families, this could increase them if there is a monopoly," Fang said. "And the quality of education could suffer from the lack of competition."
The crackdown on tutoring will go hand-in-hand with changes to private education, with a directive ordering private schools run by prestigious public schools for profit to nationalize within two years.
China's fertility rate stood at around 1.3 children per woman in 2020, compared with the 2.1 children per woman needed for the population to replace itself.
But raising children in China is a costly business, with parents stretched to find money for even one child's education. While state-run schools don't charge tuition until the 10th year of compulsory education, they increasingly demand nominal payments of various kinds, as well as payments for food and extracurricular activities.
There are signs that the people who do most of the mental, physical, and emotional work of child-bearing and raising may not readily step up to solve the government's population problems, however.
In a poll posted to the official Xinhua news agency account on the Weibo social media platform after the announcement, 29,000 out of 31,000 respondents said they wouldn't consider having more children.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Cheng Yut Yiu and Qiao Long.