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A Tortoise File

School 49

An explosion in China’s high-pressure education system

School 49

First published
Monday 13 December 2021

Last updated
Sunday 12 December 2021

Why this story?

As China grows in power and influence there’s been a rush to understand its motives and ambitions. Does it want to be part of the rules-based international order or demolish it? Does it seriously contemplate military action over somewhere like Taiwan? Our ability to make judgements on those enormous questions is constrained by our lack of understanding of more mundane stuff; the stresses and strains of life in China, the relationship between people and the state. Those issues are not well reported in China or outside.

School 49 in Chengdu is a place where the tensions in day-to-day life came briefly to the surface. A boy died – was it suicide or murder? – and a storm ripped through social media. The government was forced to respond, and did so in draconian ways. And the incident in School 49 became part of the backdrop to a far-reaching crackdown by the Chinese authorities on the mechanisms which are driving the country’s children to succeed, and sometimes to an early grave: massive pressure to excel academically, school catchment areas which create property-price bubbles, tutoring and technology which add to the stress of young life. Eerily familiar problems.

Behind the scenes, what happened around School 49 also revealed a fascinating paradox – that Chinese people can be suspicious of authority but at the same time fiercely proud of their country’s success. And sometimes those two instincts clash. Ceri Thomas, Editor