TIANJIN, China — On a hazy summer morning in July, a tiny figure climbed up a step ladder and wriggled onto a white mare named Wendy.
The rider: a red-cheeked child who gave his name, in English, as, “I’m Harry and I’m eight.”
Harry took the reins in two hands and urged Wendy to a trot. Later, with help from a half-dozen professionals from Argentina, he practiced the tougher, one-handed polo grip, perched, like a young knight, on the back of a wooden horse.
What did you do this summer? When Harry and his friends from Tianjin Golden Metropolitan Polo Club get asked the classic back-to-school query, they will have quite a tale to tell — or composition to write.
They spent part of their summer break refining their riding skills, reviewing polo etiquette and racing down the halls of the luxury hotel that doubled as their cabin. Two full-time photographers — summer-camp paparazzi — captured every move for parents and grandparents keen to see what you get for 10,000 RMB, or about $1,500 a week.
The families are at the high end of a thriving business in summer programming for Chinese children.
Not long ago, most children here spent their school break playing outside or helping their parents. With incomes rising and tighter academic competition, the summer months have become a front in China’s educational arms race.
Decades into China’s great economic transformation there is more wealth here than ever, but also more disparity. A recent survey by Peking University estimated that the country’s richest 1 percent control a third of the country’s wealth. The poorest 25 percent control about 1 percent.
For the horse-riding Harrys of the country, that means summers spent honing skills that will serve them well when they make it to Oxford or Cambridge universities, or the Ivy League.
For the vast middle class, it’s less about summer camp than supplemental classes. Even families that are struggling — and there are many — feel the pressure to keep up, often pooling the extended family’s savings to pay for whatever private tutoring they can afford.
At all ends of the market, that means one thing: money. “The sector is booming,” said Luo Moming, an assistant vice president at New Oriental, a private-education firm that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
When Luo was a child, summer camp, at least as Americans picture it, was an abstraction. Born in 1975, he spent his summers running through the streets of Wuhan, a city in central China, while his parents worked.
That changed quickly. The economic opening that followed Mao Zedong’s death, in 1976, has seen hundreds of millions toil their way from fields to factories to the ranks of the socially mobile middle class.
Thanks to the one-child policy, those raised in the boom years of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s did not, for the most part, have siblings. Parents and grandparents wanting to improve their lot put all their time and energy into that one child, ferrying “little emperors” to English lessons and math camp.
The current boom is an intensification of that trend. Chinese families are generally wealthier, healthier and better educated than ever before, but growth is slowing and there’s a fear of being left behind.
At New Oriental, the private-education firm, revenue for a project that offers extra classes for the K-to-12 set was up more than 35 percent in the past fiscal year.
Although a growing number of parents are interested in extra-curricular subjects such as painting or sports, the most popular programs are geared toward class work and tests. A perennial favorite is a 20-hour preview of a textbook called “New Concept English.”
Middle-class parents don’t want camp, per se, but courses that are “intensive and ahead of schedule,” Luo said. That way their children can test into a good middle school, get a head start on high school, ace the university entrance exam, known as the gaokao, and be on their way.
Although English lessons are always be popular, summer camps signal the parental imperatives of the day.
Weary city-slickers can send their child to nature camp, an adventure that may include a chance to meet a real-life farmer or feel dirt on their fingers for the first time. Those inspired by President Xi Jinping’s push to promote traditional culture can send their send little one to learn calligraphy and proper temple etiquette. (And what child doesn’t love temple etiquette?)
Kaixin Mama’s “Double Win Life” camp (6,980 RMB, or about $1,000 per week) is for both parent and child. The focus is improving communication and developing better life skills — oh, and getting better grades.
The woman who runs the program, Cao Kaixin, says that more and more middle-class parents want to help their children become happy and well rounded. Most parents, however, can’t abandon academics altogether just because it’s summer and the child is young.
Even for the ultra-wealthy — the type that can skip the gaokao and head straight for the SAT — summer programming comes with a focus on the future.
At polo camp in Tianjin, between hitting practice and pastry breaks, cooking class and equestrian, children learn about what it takes to get a world-class education at a brand-name school.
“Hey, what college did you go to?”12-year-old Chloe said as she skipped to lunch in her riding boots.
“I’m going to Harvard.”
Gu Jinglu in Tianjin and Jin Xin in Beijing contributed to this report.