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Why Poverty? documentary series: Education Education

Along with many things in communist China, access to higher education is the priveledge of a relative few. Weijun Chen directed a documentary highlighting the realities of Chinese education, where despite a booming middle-class, a degree far from guarantees a job. Part of the Why Poverty? series of documentaries screening all over the world, the film examines how inequality permeates education in China and how the poor are made to pay the price.

Students that don’t score high marks in the university entrance exams are denied places in the top, government-subsidised universities. These students must then pay more to attend a private college, many of which are ill-equiped with under qualified staff and false acreditation.

Wang Zehziang is a tutor at a private college, and something of a whistle- blower, describing in detail how his employers care little for the students that have paid to attend, with tutors teaching unplanned curriculums downloaded from the internet.

We see him travel across the country, giving motivational speeches to halls full of students in rural areas, all eager to get a good education. His frank honesty off duty provides an uncomfortable contrast with his stage presence and the techniques he uses to convince students and parents of the merits of his college.

Wang Pan is high school graduate whose grades aren’t good enough for her to attend one of the top universities. From a poor rural background,
her choices are limited and yet her parents are determined to send her to university for a better education. The director observes the sometimes fraught family relationships, exposing some painful moments as Wang faces the pressure of being an only child, and the only option her parents have for a better future.

Wan Chao is a recent graduate on the hunt for a job in the big city. Fresh faced and wide-eyed, he takes on the job fairs with unbridled enthusiasm, despite his lack of experience. This quickly fades as he goes from one interview or job trial to the next. Money is tight, wages are low and his realization that he can only barely live on what is offered is a reflection of the grim reality of millions of Chinese.

Shot with gritty realism and with zero gloss or fancy editing, this documentary has very little redemption for any of the characters, and will leave you feeling less than upbeat. However, this is the point – education in China is far from a fair, functioning system, and it looks like little is set to change.

Education Education will air as part of the BBC Storyville series on BBC Four at the end of this month, for further details when available, please check out our doc calendar by clicking here.

If you live outside the UK then please check the Why Poverty website to see on which local channel you can watch the documentaries.


Written by

Hazel is a freelance journalist from Dublin. Although reality TV is really not her thing, she feels it has done a certain amount to open people’s minds to the power of social observation, and therefore the wonder of documentaries. She has contributed to a number of magazines, including Monocle, IMAGE and The Irish Independent Life magazine. Guilty pleasure: old-school musicals.

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