Children wait to perform at a ceremony for the new French International School in Beijing, 19 October. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Beijing: Inside the private schools educating China’s elite

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country.

A few exits north of Beijing Airport, it seems a village has been torn down with no particular plan in mind. Beyond a half-collapsed brick wall lies a rubble-strewn patchwork of foundations – the footprints of traditional single-storey courtyard houses – that stretches on for several hundred yards. At the far corner of the abandoned village is a surprising sight: a tidy quadrangle of red-brick buildings stands behind a wrought-iron fence, looking like the Hollywood set of a school. Against the relentless grey of suburban Beijing, the grass lawns are so green they appear lit from within.

This is Keystone Academy, whose website boasts that the school will nurture the emergence of “the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of China”, tapping in to the ambitions of the country’s new elite. Such schools are wary of journalists, so I posed as a prospective parent to take a look inside. Keystone Academy is modelled on a New England boarding school, and says it uses the same curriculum as Sidwell Friends, where Barack Obama’s daughters study. It is the brainchild of well-connected private investors, and it charges fees of up to £25,000 a year, roughly six times the per-capita income in China.

Standing in front of a conference table strewn with candy-coloured luxury bags and tablets, the head of admissions explained the benefits of Keystone’s extra-curricular activities, including a swimming programme taught by a pair of Olympic gold medallists. Fathers peered at smartphones; mothers in thick mascara, pressed jeans and rhinestone-encrusted platform Chuck Taylors snapped pictures of the PowerPoint presentation. A woman in a red leather jacket clutched my arm and earnestly told me how lucky I am not to be Chinese.

“You have other choices,” she said. “For us it is just this.”

The “us” she was referring to are wealthy Chinese passport-holders. Since 2005, UK public schools including Harrow and Dulwich College have opened satellite schools in China, but these are open only to students with a foreign passport. Chinese nationals can study an international curriculum at a private school, but only at the same time as they follow the Chinese programme.

In recent years the number of private schools catering to Chinese nationals has grown rapidly. A Chinese-owned chain offering a Canadian curriculum dominates, with more than 30 schools across the country. Schools offering British, Australian and US curriculums are also popular.

An educational arms race has developed. One school has outdoor fields shielded by a football-pitch-sized dome, intended to filter out the Beijing smog. Administrators from elite New England prep schools are installed at private Chinese academies with the kind of pomp usually reserved for the pandas the government donates to zoos overseas.

The people I met at the Keystone Academy open day are in many ways privileged. State schools are so crowded that parents will pay hundreds of dollars to secure front-row seats for their children, in the hope that teachers will notice them. For the children of migrant workers, substandard illegal schools are often the only option.

Yet wealthy Chinese still face a stark choice. They can send their kids to local schools, where young lives are consumed by days and nights memorising enough information to compete with the ten million candidates who sit each year for the gaokao, the gruelling national college entrance exam that a third of all students fail. Or they can send them to one of the new crop of schools, such as Keystone.

Despite the apparent emphasis the private schools place on encouraging free thinking, there will be many questions that students cannot answer, and that teachers won’t ask. Under law, discussion will veer around certain topics. School libraries will not stock history books that mention events that shaped the lives of parents and grandparents: Tiananmen Square, the Great Leap Forward, the famine that ensued. If topics of equality and justice arise, there will be no mention of the wealth accumulated by the families of the most powerful men in the Communist Party. Students will learn subjects such as Chinese handicrafts and dance, but this will not be enough to bind them to their national culture and heritage.

Although the population of school graduates grows each year, the number of pupils sitting the gaokao has remained steady as ever more students opt out. Few private-school students will take their gaokao, knowing that they are unlikely to pass. They will have no choice but to study abroad and return as outsiders. There will be so much they know, yet they will never be allowed to say. 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.