BEIJING: Down a ramshackle alleyway, with no running water or toilet, and filled with rubbish, lies a cramped, 13-square-metre room few wealthy Chinese would deign to occupy. It is for sale at nearly $600,000.
The space has one particular feature that makes it a spectacularly desirable residence: ownership entitles the buyer’s child to a place at the nearby Huangchenggen Primary School, considered one of the best in the People’s Republic.
The asking price of 3.8 million yuan is equivalent to $45,000 per square metre (nearly $4,200 per square foot) — comparable to some properties in Mediterranean tax haven Monaco.
Even so, “it’s going to move quickly,” said an estate agent showing the space, adding he had already sold two adjacent rooms.
Chinese parents are renowned for the high value they put on education, but the astronomic prices the rich are willing to pay to ensure their children get into the best schools have raised a furore over equality of opportunity.
The room’s price is more than the cost of sending a student to Harvard for both an undergraduate degree and law school.
The phenomenon is the natural outcome of a system that “emphasises that children must win from the starting line”, said Tao Hongkai, director of an education research centre at Central China Normal University.
Parents are “investing two-thirds of their income in their child’s education”, he said, adding that “since they only have one child, they put everything into them”.
Only owning guarantees a spot at the exclusive schools, not renting, so that the best schools are increasingly reserved for China’s wealthy.
“Before, educational resources were relatively balanced. Now, it’s completely education for aristocrats,” said Tao.
‘Better if it’s liveable’
Reports that a buyer paid 5.3 million yuan for an 11.4-square-metre room in Wenchang Alley, with similar access privileges at Beijing Number Two Experimental Primary School, ignited controversy last week.
The schools’ catchment areas, where property-owning families with Beijing residency are guaranteed a free place, are restricted to only a few streets, with other hopefuls having to apply — and pay — for one of the coveted slots.
Beijing Number Two takes in around 800 children a year, many of whose parents are government officials.
As is common in the capital’s central neighbourhoods, many of the centuries-old courtyard dwellings have been chopped into a dozen or more small rooms.