It costs more to send your child to kindergarten in Beijing today than it does to put him or her through college. As outsiders pour into the capital looking for work, and parents try to give their offspring an ever-earlier competitive advantage, scarce preschool places are commanding record fees.
"There are just too many kids and too few kindergartens," sighs Li Jia, sales manager at a lingerie company, as she rescues her 2-year-old son's toy car from beneath the sofa.
"The private ones are too expensive, and it's really hard to get into a public one," agrees her husband, Xing Jun. "I did not expect this when my son was born."
It is almost impossible, according to parents and teachers, to find a reputable kindergarten in Beijing that charges less than 1,000 renminbi ($150) a month, which is a quarter of an average salary in the capital. Some charge five times that, putting intense strain on the budgets of even better-off young parents already burdened by heavy mortgages.
By comparison, tuition and accommodation at Peking University, the country's best, costs only about 700 renminbi ($102) a month, thanks to heavy government subsidies.
And in Japan, another nation famously focused on a child's education, two years of kindergarten on average costs 500,000 yen ($2,791 per year or $232 per month). But the price tag at elite schools can rise to 10 times that amount.
Still, the average Japanese worker makes about 10 times more than the average Chinese worker.
The Beijing education authorities are struggling to meet the rising demand, without much success. They have increased class sizes this year to 40 children, up from 35, and added classrooms for another 12,000 places, according to the Education Department of the Beijing city government. There are plans to add a further 12,000 in the near future, officials say.
But even that will leave a quarter of a million kindergarten-age children in Beijing – more than half the total – without places, according to a recent report by the Beijing Academy of Educational Science.
The pressure on kindergartens is particularly heavy at the moment because children born in 2007 – an especially auspicious year in the Chinese calendar – are coming up to preschool age. Beijing's birthrate spiked in 2007, according to official statistics, jumping 25 percent from the year before to the highest total for two decades.
All this means that poorer Beijingers are forced to fall back on the traditional child-care solution in China – relying on the grandparents – since in most Chinese families both parents work. But Grandma is not good enough for many new parents in Beijing's burgeoning middle class. They want their little darlings – all single children under China's one-child policy – to get ahead from the word go.
"We are always comparing," says Lu Qi, a 32-year-old technical manager at a BluRay DVD manufacturer who began last June to look for a kindergarten that would take his 2-year- old boy next September.
"If other parents are sending their children to preschool and you don't, your child won't have any playmates," he worries. "Parents don't want their kids to lose right from the starting line: If just one family sends his kid to kindergarten, everybody will."
"If they don't mix, they won't learn to communicate properly," adds Ms. Li. "We want our boy to learn social skills at kindergarten."
Hao Jianqiu, headmistress of Donghuamen kindergarten near the Forbidden City, one of the most highly regarded in Beijing, says, "Parents are definitely paying more attention nowadays to preschool. Their children carry the whole family's hopes on their shoulders; if their education is a failure, the family fails."
"The good thing is that parents spend more today on preschool" Ms. Hao adds. "The bad thing is that it puts huge pressure on the children."
It is common for 3-year-olds in Beijing kindergartens to learn English, and not unusual for them to take after-school classes in music, tae kwon do, or chess, which cost extra.
As a public school, whose teachers' salaries are paid by the state, Donghuamen charges a government-approved 1,000 renminbi a month for basic tuition. But the kindergarten will be able to take only 110 of the 800 children who have applied for places next September, Hao says.
Mr. Xing put his boy, Xing Yuchen, down for Donghuamen, but he says he was given to understand that the toddler would stand a chance of being accepted only if he attended weekly preparation and evaluation classes with one of his parents. Neither his mother nor father could afford to take time off work to do that.
Two other reasonably affordable public schools in the district told Xing he did not stand a chance of getting his son in (because, he believes, he lacks the right connections).
The dramatic shortage of places in public schools has created a huge demand for privately run kindergartens, which can charge what they like for highly variable services. Many of them simply offer to look after the children, "but if that's all I wanted I'd let my mother do it," says Xing.
He has pinned his hopes on a city-run kindergarten that gives priority to Muslim children – Xing belongs to the Hui Muslim minority – but that school, too, is oversub-scribed. "One of my relatives is pay-ing 4,500 renminbi ($660) a month for kindergarten, and a colleague at work is paying 3,700 ($544)," Xing says. If the Muslim kindergarten option doesn't work out, he will have to dig into his savings.
"We don't want to spend that much, but if we have no choice, we will have to," he says, shrugging. "We don't want Xing Yuchen to be behind when he goes to elementary school."