If there's one thing that spare-time students won't do, it's go soft. For kids at Shishahai, the day begins at 6 a.m. with breakfast, followed by four hours of classes and studying until 11:30 a.m. Then there's lunch and a nap from noon to 2:30, four grueling hours of training, dinner until 7, more studies from 7 to 9 and lights out at 9:30. Students are not permitted to leave the campus, except on Wednesday nights, when they may go out after dinner until 9:30, barely enough time to catch a good wu shu flick. There are no TVs allowed in the school, no in-room phones or stereos and no dating. The penalty for breaking these rules is official criticism. Coke, VCRs and Colonel Sanders may have arrived in Beijing, but the honor of China is still the most precious commodity.
At Western District, the regimen is no less demanding. The drills are always timed. For instance, Liyin is required to do 20 standing back-flips in 90 seconds. The parents who keep their kids here do it to teach them chi ku. "We brought our son here to build for him a strong will," says the boy's mother. Lieu Junjie. "At first, my son refused to come here because of the hardships, but we insisted on it. Now he can beat me in arm wrestling." Her child is seven. Liyin's parents want discipline, too. Some days, if the weather is cold, they purposely don't dress her warmly. Says her mother, "We want to toughen her."
But it's not just the sometimes cruel discipline of the spare-time schools that turns some parents off. In a recent poll taken by the Shanghai Evening News, 65% of the city's parents said their children love sports, but only 1.2% said they would choose to send their kids to a spare-time school. Mostly, they worry about the academics at the schools, which are lousy. The better an athlete gets in the spare-time system, the less time he has for hitting the books. Most athletes are too busy training to attempt to go through the rigorous process leading to university admission, and since very few athletes become bona fide stars, they've missed the one thing that helps them get a good job—a good education.
So there are still a few bugs in the system. The party is working on eliminating them. A change just announced will allow a few really good college-age athletes to go for one year to a good school, like Beijing University, without taking the mandatory three days of entrance exams that probably would weed them out. Sort of a Proposition 48 with a Chinese twist.
Perhaps someday Liyin will be one of these special kids; perhaps she will have all things—a good education, a good salary and an Olympic gold medal. But for now, she's just one of the many fish. And every day she's tested to see if she will fall through the net. Today, standing on that beam, was a harder test than most. But she did the flip. She showed them she could chi ku. She is still in the net.
Maybe tomorrow Liyin will "bring glory to Beijing city and to China," but for today, as her father pedals her home through the rush-hour traffic, Liyin is just a six-year-old girl who has fallen asleep against his back.
Even dragons get the nights off.