Sports and music lessons for China’s kids in sharp decline as purse strings tighten

By Thomson Reuters Mar 12, 2024 | 8:13 PM

By Sophie Yu and Anne Marie Roantree

BEIJING (Reuters) – Last August, Zhang Zhaolin pulled her 10-year-old son out of soccer classes that he loved after she was laid off from her job at a Chinese internet firm.

Zhang, who had worked in livestreaming and was let go earlier in the year with dozens of other employees, said her family had to cut back on all unnecessary expenses given their monthly mortgage payments of 30,000 yuan ($4,200) for their apartment.

“We have savings but I’m not confident about finding another job with equivalent pay anytime soon or even if I will be able to find a new job ever,” the 41-year-old said.

Spending heavily on after-school activities was once par for the course for middle-class families who usually have just one child, but the world’s second-largest economy is in the throes of a crisis of confidence.

Companies have lost business due to trade tensions with the West and the property sector has been reeling under mountains of debt. The year began with a stock market rout, concerns abound that deflation may become entrenched and consumer confidence is hovering near record lows.

That’s had a devastating impact on schools and clubs offering activities like soccer, swimming, piano and dance with many having closed.

Piano teacher Liu Hongyu has seen her number of students more than halve since starting her Beijing school six years ago and frets more will quit.

When times were good in 2018 she employed two full-time and two part-time teachers for 70 students. After demand plummeted with the pandemic and continued to weaken, she shifted to smaller cheaper premises and now has just two part-time teachers.

“My worry is whether the 30 students we have now will renew their classes after they finish the classes already paid for,” she said.

Parents have also become reluctant to pay for long sets of lessons in advance, concerned about their own financial security and conscious that many schools have gone bust.

“Now, I have to accept that parents pay for one class at a time,” added Liu, who charges 300-350 yuan ($40-$48) per lesson.

Tellingly, the cutbacks on extracurriculars come at a time when parents, in theory, should have seen a steep drop in education-related costs.

In 2021, authorities cracked down on the private-sector tutoring industry – seeking to lessen the amount of homework given to students and to rein in the sky-high costs of education. China is the second most expensive place to raise a child after South Korea, according to Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute.

The crackdown has all but abolished extra classes for academic subjects although the option of tutoring at home is still allowed.

But while extracurriculars like music, dance and sport were not targeted by regulators, they’ve been hit hard by the unintended effects of the new policy.

Schools in many districts have now been ordered to stay open longer so that students have somewhere to go because private tutoring schools have closed. There are no formal classes but kids can do homework during that time.

That means families with two full-time working parents who once may have opted for after-school lessons to keep children occupied can choose to do fewer classes or none.

“Students are now at school till 5:30 p.m. at many schools whereas before they would finish at about 3:30 p.m. … there’s hardly any time for sports or arts classes,” said He Baosong, a coach at a swimming club in downtown Beijing.

China’s education ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the impact of the crackdown on sports and music schools.

He said many swim schools had closed and the school where he worked was losing about 200,000 yuan ($27,800) per month.

“The economy is really weak. It’s not just my club, every swimming club or rather every club in sports or the arts is like this,” he said.

($1 = 7.1900 Chinese yuan)

(Reporting by Sophie Yu in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)