Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Cutthroat Academic Competition Is Ruining a Generation of Youth
The 'gaokao' college entrance exam is really a merciless struggle for wealth and power.
Forget retired NBA all-star Yao Ming or actress/pop star Fan Bingbing. The real objects of awe and adulation among Chinese youth — at least those of high school age — are the zhuangyuan, the top performers on the gaokao, the country’s annual national college entrance exam. Test results are released in late June, and this year as others, the top scorers in each province or major city often become brief media darlings, having assiduously prepared for years to sit a multiday examination that pits them against hundreds of thousands of other students all vying for the same thing. Besting them all can mean admission to one of China’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University, which then often make a spectacle of vying for the top scorers. This year, according to the Chongqing Evening News, Peking University arranged a special car service for Liu Nanfeng, the top scorer in the southern megacity of Chongqing. When the results came out, Liu was on vacation in the western city of Chengdu, but decided to return home after learning he’d just become famous. Peking University insisted on transporting him home by private chauffeur, even though the ride was four hours slower than the boy’s scheduled train.
This year, among the anxious online chatter surrounding the imminent gaokao were images of motivational classroom wall banners with breezy statements like “Jinping, Keqiang: Brothers, I’m coming!” That language is surprising because it refers to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang by their first names, and referring to government officials that way is usually taboo. Some college students once managed to unfurl an (instantly famous) banner saying “Hello, Xiaoping” during the 35th National Day parade in 1984 in an effort to pay homage to then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s liberal economic policies. The students did not get in trouble, but they were the exception that proved the general rule. No one ever dared call former Communist Party Chairman Mao “Zedong,” and even today it’s bad form to refer publicly to any leader as “bro.”
This language was acceptable only because it adorned the wall of a high school classroom. President Xi went to Tsinghua University, while Premier Li Keqiang attended Peking University; the two universities are not only considered the best two in China but are objectively the hardest to get into. (Peking University, founded in 1898, was China’s first university to organize itself around departments and to look beyond the teaching of Chinese classics, while Tsinghua was established in 1911 with forgiven Boxer Rebellion indemnity money as a preparatory school for overseas studies in the United States.) Even if Xi or Li saw the sign online, they likely tolerated the slight impertinence because they, like their countrymen, understand just how important the gaokao is to a young Chinese person.
Top scorer Liu described himself to the Evening News as having been briefly “stunned,” and then breaking into a laugh, after receiving a phone call with the good news. But competition on the test is extraordinarily severe. Another saying, popular online, is illustrative: “Gain one point, surpass a thousand people.” Instead of the standard term for surpass, chaoguo, the phrase uses the term gandiao, which implies a killing. Neither the language nor the sentiment behind it is likely to strike Chinese students as unusual.
At the Beijing secondary school I attended, teachers often reminded students that one additional gaokao point equated to besting the equivalent of one huge sports field crammed with students. They weren’t exaggerating: At the provincial or the national level, hundreds of students sometimes end up sharing the same overall score, which means that an additional point can catapult a tester past hundreds of others in the rankings. A few of my high school classmates were not permitted to attend their dream universities because they were one point short of the relevant cutoff scores.
The consequences of the massive pressure and the rhetoric that the gaokao engenders are far-reaching. Overtly or unconsciously, students learn to view the gaokao — not to mention life — as a cruel, zero-sum game. Each student is more or less familiar with the notion that their own advancement, and thus the elimination of others, is a clear and paramount goal. That makes the gaokao a silent war, and on its indifferent battlefield, even friends and classmates are in fact enemies.
The gaokao gained cutthroat cachet because of Chinese people’s anxious craving for upward mobility, coupled with their unswerving faith in college education as perhaps the only stepping stone to a higher status and a better life for those in the middle or the bottom. Or as another slogan goes: “Without the gaokao, how can you compete against kids with silver spoons?” Although the children of the rich and the powerful aren’t admired, they are envied, and materialistic objectives underlie the gaokao: Students want to become as rich and powerful as those who already are. The only difference is that they can’t do it through inheritance, so they must do it with hard work. That means acing the gaokao.
Lest readers think of gaokao fever as a manifestation of all that ails modern China, it’s important to note that Chinese people have relied on testing systems to separate the wheat from the chaff for over 1,000 years. The gaokao, instituted in 1952, is just the keju — the test for aspiring scholar-officials from the early 7th century until 1905 — in another form. As today, the true goal of acing the keju was wealth and power.
Both the keju and the gaokao are tools to countervail nepotism and inherited wealth. In 2011, Feng Junqi, a sociology Ph.D. at Peking University, published a widely discussed doctoral thesis on the family political dynasties of Zhongxian, a small prefecture in Henan province. In that county, which many viewed as representative of many in China, Feng found that blood relationships were the sole factor determining who joined the powerful elite; average people had no chance of climbing up the social ladder. By contrast, the gaokao is perceived as relatively fair and worthy of trust.
Given the stakes, it should not be surprising that some try to cheat, even if reported statistics suggest it’s a small minority. This year, on the morning of the first day of the gaokao, the newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily shocked the nation with an article exposing the existence of an entire industry dedicated to recruiting impostors to take the gaokao in place of their less academically competent clients. An undercover reporter posing as a would-be impostor found work from a father who had made his fortune in Shanghai, but came from a family of rural residents in northeastern Shandong province. Currently, rural residents do not enjoy the same benefits as urban residents under the hukou, or residency system. As a result, even though the family was well off, it still felt it needed someone to take the gaokao in place of the family’s son. The article reflected an anxiety among the nouveaux riches that even money is not enough. Only a decent university and the opportunities that come with it can increase the chances of obtaining official urban residency, ultimately a prerequisite for the improved social status some wealthy families crave.
The truth is that neither money nor gaokao success are, on their own, sufficient to assuage status anxiety in a hypercompetitive modern China. A high gaokao score isn’t the silver bullet that some Chinese families (not to mention domestic and foreign media) make it out to be. A 2013 book by Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu suggests that a massive state-led expansion in college enrollment over the past decade has mostly served to delay competition by four more years. And staggering disparities in educational opportunities and resources exist among various regions, even as quota rules render competition fiercer in the areas that most need help. For instance, Peking University and Tsinghua University have similar overall quotas for Beijing and other provinces, yet the municipality of Beijing has far fewer students participating in the gaokao compared with many big provinces, significantly bolstering a Beijinger’s odds of entry. Even if a rural student manages to test into a flagship Chinese university, his or her parents may find themselves unable to pay. Sohu, a major Chinese web news portal, maintains an online section dedicated to the tragedies of rural parents who have either worked themselves to death in an effort to scrounge up the money or have committed suicide because of their inability to do so.
Small wonder that, by one estimate, 55,000 Chinese students took the American SAT last year in an effort to dedicate their energies to an exam with better chances of success. Then again, they mostly came from families with the means to send a child abroad, or they attended one of the small number of Chinese high schools rich enough to fund “international track” programs for those pricey Western schools. But the same pressures and incentives afflict even these lucky ones. In May, U.S. authorities indicted 15 Chinese nationals for leading an elaborate SAT cheating scheme that sent better-prepared impostors to places like western Pennsylvania to sit the exam for paying clients. Ironically, when competition is this fierce, no one really wins.
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