School choice in China is characterized by the payment of substantial amounts of additional ("choice") fees by parents to the preferred school, and by the use of cultural, social and economic capital to obtain places in oversubscribed schools. This study examines the role of social capital in current parent-initiated school choice in China. It finds that it is common for parents to mobilize their social capital in the form of guanxi to acquire insider information, to facilitate or gain exceptional entry into the preferred school and to reduce or waive the choice fee. The paper also addresses the issue of educational inequality caused by such practice in the school choice process.
Social capital, school choice, admission, educational market, educational inequality, social stratification
School choice in China is characterized by the payment of substantial amounts of "choice fees" (additional money, often substantial, that parents of choice students, who do not live in the catchment area, pay to their preferred school), as well as the use of cultural, social and economic capital before and during the school choice process in order to obtain a place in oversubscribed schools (Wu, 2008, 2011).
According to the Compulsory Education Law of the People's Republic of China (National Peoples' Congress, 1986), school placement in the compulsory education sector should be determined on the basis of proximity. Thus, the official policy on school choice is that there should be no school choice for compulsory education (i.e., primary schools and junior middle schools) and limited school choice for post-compulsory education (i.e., senior middle schools). But in reality, school choice takes place in both compulsory and pre- and post-compulsory education because choice fees benefit the schools, the local governments and those parents and their children who obtain a place in their preferred school (Wu, 2008).
The concept of social capital is seen in different ways by different scholars. Grounding it in the context of social reproduction, Bourdieu defined social capital as "the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 19). Approaching social capital from a functional perspective, Coleman (1988) stated that "[s]ocial capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of two elements in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structure, entities with and they facilitate certain actions of actors, within the structure" (p. S98). Since there is not a universally accepted concept of social capital, the term "social capital" used in this paper is defined operationally as the resources embedded in one's social network that can be mobilized to facilitate individual action.
The notion of social capital is closely related to the Chinese term guanxi, a central concept in Chinese society. Literally meaning "connections" or "relationships," the actual meaning of the term goes far beyond this, as relationships do not necessarily produce guanxi. Guanxi refers...