TEN-year-old Leo Xi sits on a piano stool at a birthday party in Beijing's affluent north-east, jammed between his parents, as they debate whether he studies too hard. Each day he gets home from school at 4.30pm, does homework until 8pm and finishes with an hour's extra English practice in preparation for university abroad.
"I want to set my son on the right track," explains Leo's mother, Yang Xuan, 39, an executive at a multinational IT firm. "We are very close."
"She's so strict," says the father, Steven Xi, 44, also an executive at a foreign software firm. "Without finishing his homework, he's not allowed to eat!"
Is Leo's mother a tiger mother? "You are not a tiger mother compared with other families," Leo tells her reassuringly, playing the diplomat in the middle but triggering new objections from his father.
There are few, if any, subjects in China that command as much attention, create as much angst or generate as much controversy as education. It has been seen in China as the ticket to social mobility since the early days of imperial exams.
The focus seems to be intensifying, even with rising prosperity and new alternative paths to success. Education is improving across the country but remains woefully underfunded in most places. Elite big city schools have world-class facilities and are expanding their curriculums, but still the infamous "gao kao" year 12 exams reduce students and sometimes their extended families to nervous wrecks. And parents will do almost anything to ensure their child can escape the poverty, deprivations and obligations they themselves were born into.
Traditionally, Chinese families would focus their limited resources on just the brightest of their children. But with rising wealth, and a population policy that restricts most Chinese families to just one child, the hopes and the pressure now apply to almost every child.
"Every family thinks 'because we have one kid we will certainly try our best to let this student have a very good education'," says Tang Shengchang, principal of the high-performing Shanghai Middle School. "So expectations for the futures of young kids are getting higher and higher, higher than any time in Chinese history."
In rural China and on the urban fringes, the education challenges are of a different scale. Perhaps the most pressing problem is that a large proportion of China's 160 million migrant workers from the countryside can't find places for their children in urban schools.
IN TONGZHOU, a district in Beijing's far south-east, an influx of migrant workers has doubled the population to 1.2 million in a decade. These workers on the bottom tier of China's industrial machine receive few if any of the social services reserved for urban residents. The privately funded Tongzhou Rainbow Primary School was established in 2000 by a young teacher who saw a market opportunity.
Wang Jinyu enterprise morphed into a non-profit public service when he saw how the community poured in its support and migrant families invested the futures of their children in it. He caps tuition fees at a little over 720 yuan (about $A110) per semester, as the parents of his students could afford no more, and kept it running on donations and volunteers.
When Fairfax arrived on a freezing mid-January morning, an official from the local electricity bureau arrived to connect power for the first time in a year. There had been no central heating, even though the temperature had barely breached zero since mid-December.
"If I want to get power installed from others it might have cost 20,000-30,000 yuan," said Wang, ecstatic at his stroke of luck. "But it is free now and they even didn't take a cigarette."
The school had already closed for the winter break to enable families to obtain train tickets to return to their ancestral villages before the Spring Festival crush. Several families that had made makeshift homes inside the school building had remained, however, because they could not afford tickets. For all of them, education was the great hope they had for a brighter future, just like the elite families of Beijing and Shanghai.
Feng Guoying, from Henan province, runs a family of five (in breach of family planning policies) on a monthly income of 1000 yuan. She cooks for the teachers to offset the school fees of her daughter in year 3, who aspires to be an artist. "The only way is to study hard," she says. "I tell my kids to do their homework every day, otherwise they will end up like us."
The good news is the Beijing municipal government has begun to open places for migrant children, taking pressure off his school. The bad news is that declining enrolments means principal Wang cannot afford even the token wages of his teachers and has fallen further into debt. "I will be happy to see them studying at better-facilitied public schools," he says. "The dilemma is that not all the students, for different reasons, have anywhere to go."
The local government may soon make his decision for him because it will soon evict him from the land on which he has been squatting. "I will wait until the demolition announcement so that I could explain to the parents that it was not because I didn't want to continue."
Among the parents he will need to inform include those of Pan Shuo, in year 5, who has stayed behind for school under the care of his grandmother. Pan's parents have returned to Heilongjiang province where his mother is getting medical treatment. "My mother is sick," Pan says. "I want to become a doctor so that I could cure my mum."
PIONEERING schools, such as Shanghai Middle School, are teaching critical thinking and broadening the horizons of elite Chinese schoolchildren. But even on the campus, which is home to some of the world's best-performing students, older students have to grapple with the added complication of an authoritarian political system.
Political indoctrination faded from school and university campuses during the relatively liberal 1980s but was forced back immediately after the Tiananmen massacres. "During the last 10 years, our biggest mistake was made in the field of education, primarily in ideological and political education," paramount leader Deng Xiaoping told the officers that had executed his martial law instructions on June 9, 1989.
As well as skewing the history textbooks, the Communist Party's tight control of education encourages students to avoid important subjects and it can reward the suspension of critical thinking. Fairfax arrived at Shanghai Middle School on the day of a major journalists' rebellion over deepening censorship at their once-proud newspaper, the Southern Weekend.
Year 11 student Xue Xiaotian, who like most elite students is a member of the Communist Youth League and hopes to obtain party membership as soon as he turns 18, left no doubt as to where his allegiances lay. "The Southern Weekend just said something that was not very harmonious," he said. "I think the government is already working very hard for our future so we should not make bad comments because it will bring hurt to our people's heart and also the government's heart."
Xue's study partner, Angela Ma, however, had been following the (heavily filtered) news and views more closely on her microblog via her mobile phone each night before going to bed. She was curious but cautious. "We think as students we should think more but do less," she said, adding that the government should do more to improve transparency and accountability.
The weight of politics is far greater at China's leading universities, which have traditionally been crucibles of dissent. The kind of teaching innovations that have made Shanghai Middle School arguably the most successful in the world have not penetrated China's top universities, despite huge funding injections. That's one reason that one in five students at Shanghai Middle School head overseas for tertiary study.
Many parents also worry that, despite improvements at elite schools, their children are imprisoned in a Confucian tradition of rote-learning and submission to authority, leaving them ill-equipped for the modern world. Others worry that studying overseas, and even modern life in China, is depriving children of their Chinese roots. It's a debate that never stops.
AT THE 10-year-old's birthday party in Beijing, conversation among the parents soon settles into its natural orbit. "Friends are talking about when they should send their kids abroad: primary school, middle or high?" says Leo's father, Steven Xi. "I thought of sending him at primary level but I noticed that young kids become lost when they return."
For Xi, the West has a cultural attraction owing in part to the efficient and non-hierarchical decision-making he finds in the foreign firm he works at. He has also been thinking about China's rising social tensions and the absence of the democratic traditions of the West that he traces back to the ancient Greeks.
Leo's mother, however, has more positive reasons for keeping Leo in China longer. "We're now thinking that he can go when he has hardened his Chinese roots," she says. "I will ask him to show his respects to his elders because we are Chinese."
The imperatives of a superior education make it "necessary" to send her son overseas. "There are so-called 'Ivy League' universities in China but the competition is intense," she says. "And I notice that students in China's Ivy League don't learn much."
Which Ivy League university does Leo have his eyes on? "Princeton," Leo instantly replies. He runs off to rejoin his precocious friends and classmates at the party, where they are joking around together and playing war games on iPads.
The birthday boy, Max Dai, happens to be top of his grade at their school, Fangcaodi. Max's father, Dai Li, runs a huge interior design business with 13,000 employees, but seems far more focused on his only son. Even for multimillionaires, the education question isn't easy. Dai, 38, has been immersing himself in the classic Confucian and Daoist texts he missed out on at school in the early post-Mao years. He explains how he has been imparting this late-life classical education to his son but worries he had overdone the filial piety.
Max presents us with Spring Festival door hangings, penned in his own calligraphy, which he has been studying in his spare time. Then he treats us to a piano recital. I ask Max how the music makes him feel. His father looks encouragingly towards him, he looks uncomfortably back at his father, and after a pause he replies in a soft, deadpan voice: "Happy."
"He's a little afraid of me," says the father, a hugely successful businessman, apologetically. "Although we communicate openly, he always agrees with what I want. I don't think my educating has been successful."
Dai quotes a Confucian saying to explain why Chinese children are overly obedient. "The son is subordinate to the father, the official to the emperor, so naturally children are afraid of their parents. I don't know much about the West but I admire their methods, they are more like friends. It's hard for Chinese people to make such changes, it will take at least a few generations."
Max finally opens up after we notice a telescope on his parents' balcony. "My parents want me to go to the school I want to go to and be the person I want to be," says Max. "I don't want to become an astronaut, because it requires courage."
Would he like to study astronomy at an overseas university? "I don't really know," says Max. "Many people say they are better, but I'm a little bit afraid of flying."