English Textbook Shelves Empty in Shanghai Bookstore After New Rules

The city government moves to control the prices of official textbooks and orders schools not to use anything not on the list.
By Qiao Long
2021.08.26
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English Textbook Shelves Empty in Shanghai Bookstore After New Rules Students are shown in their classroom at Shanghai High School in a May 7, 2020 photo.
AFP

English textbooks disappeared from the shelves of the Shanghai branch of the state-backed Xinhua Bookstore this week, as parents rushed to panic-buy books, for fear they may later be banned under a nationwide crackdown on private tutoring.

Photos of empty shelves that appeared to be part of the bookstore were posted to social media on Monday, parents in the city told RFA, with complaints that some textbooks were nowhere to be seen.

"A lot of parents were taking photos in bookstores in Shanghai, because teaching materials for English had disappeared from the shelves," a Shanghai-based parent surnamed Li told RFA.

"That caused panic among the parents ... because they had already stopped selling those books that have exercises in each chapter," she said.

She said the Shanghai municipal government had issued a directive on Aug. 20 banning schools or parents from buying textbooks that haven't been officially approved.

"One buyer told me that a lot of people have been arrested lately [for selling pirated copies of textbooks]," she said.

"A lot of students and their parents are now finding that it's getting much harder to get a hold of books online," she said. "Even if you manage to buy a book ... you have to go underground, as if you were at a meeting of the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party (CCP) when it was banned."

The Shanghai municipal authorities have already set up an official buying scheme at 20 designated branches of the Xinhua bookstore chain in the city, "to solve the problem of individual students' ordering of teaching materials," according to a copy of the directive cited by Shangguan News.

Schools must provide the stores with lists of students who will need to buy specific texts in advance, the directive said.

Xinhua Media, which owns the Xinhua bookstores, made a comment on social media blaming "equipment failure" for the empty shelves.

The lack of English-language teaching materials in Shanghai comes after the city authorities canceled primary school English exams in a bid to lighten the burden on children and parents, amid growing calls for English to be de-emphasized in China's state schools.

The Shanghai municipal government education bureau announced in early August that primary school students should only have to sit final exams in Chinese and math, while other subjects will be subject to teacher evaluation with no test score.

Schools are also banned from using textbooks published overseas that haven't been reviewed and approved by the the city education bureau's textbook review committee, the government said in a statement.

A shift in emphasis

There are signs that the move may be part of a concerted shift in emphasis on the part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) away from English amid a trade war with the United States and growing friction with liberal democracies over Beijing's human rights record.

The changes in Shanghai come after Xu Jin, a leader of China's parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said publicly that only around one in 10 students actually needed the English they learned.

Recent figures from the ministry of education showed that Chinese parents spent nearly 164 billion yuan on helping their kids keep up with compulsory English classes in 2017.

But an incoming ban on out-of-school tutoring will likely have a huge impact on that figure for 2021, as around 68 percent of the tutoring industry in Shanghai was given over to English teaching, according to figures from March 2021.

A current affairs commentator surnamed Su from the eastern province of Jiangxi said the government's policies will also likely have the effect of limiting the numbers of students who attend senior high school or university.

"Only around half of those who apply are actually getting accepted at a senior high school now, and the other half are either left to look for work or get vocational training," Su told RFA.

"So the parents are trying to be tiger parents, and seek out all of the English-learning books for their kids, with a view to teaching them themselves at home," he said. "Online textbooks and teaching materials are disappearing fast."

He said the government has started telling parents they should manage their kids' expectations of higher education, amid an ongoing shortage of industrial workers.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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