Last week 9.75 million teenagers sat the two-day national university entrance exam known as the gaokao.
That’s less than the high of 10.4 million in 2008 but slightly more than last year.
What was perhaps more striking this year was a survey by Sina News that only 50% of high school students think of the gaokao as one of life’s most defining events.
This differs greatly from previous generations who often viewed the exam as the single-largest determinant of their future.
Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of the key exam’s reintroduction, following a decade-long hiatus caused by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
This year is the same anniversary marking Deng Xiaoping’s decision to launch the ‘Reform and Opening’ era – the results of which have seen China develop into the world’s second biggest economy.
And in provinces including Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, that same policy (plus President Xi Jinping’s encouragement of its legacy) was the subject of the Chinese-language essay question.
In other provinces politics generated the main essay question too. For instance in Hebei, Henan and Hubei students were asked to write a letter to the Chinese population of 2035 – the year that Xi has targeted for the nation to reach “socialist modernisation”.
In Beijing examinees were asked for their views on “growing up during the development of the motherland”. Again, there was a subtext to the question that seemed rather topical. The subtitle of the question was “New Youth, New Era” – ‘New Era’ being the term that Xi introduced at the Party Congress last year to describe a stronger, richer China.
Unsurprisingly some questioned the overt political content in what is supposed to be test of the ability to construct an essay.
“Is this an exam for university or a test for civil servants?” queried an annoyed weibo user.
“This feels like test of political loyalty, not academic ability,” wrote another.
The state news agency Xinhua acknowledged the political content of the exams but said the questions were chosen because of their relevance and to encourage students to engage with the issues of the day.
An official from the Department of Education also claimed that the questions had been chosen to “transmit values positively”.
The creeping political content of the exam wasn’t the only way that Xi’s shadow loomed large over the gaokao.
In May, a month before the exam, the education ministry also banned the “idolisation” of so-called ‘gaokao champions’ citing the president’s “guidance” in the ‘New Era of Socialism’.
The practice of publishing the names and scores of the top performers has been around since the creation of the exam in 1952. But in recent years the top scorers have been interviewed by TV channels and national newspapers. This has led to public spats between universities trying to attract the top talent (see WiC115 for some of the dirty tricks employed) and parents demanding large scholarships for their brainbox children.
The public feting of top scorers has also thrown a spotlight on the inequality in the education system. In an interview with ThePaper.cn last year, one of Beijing’s top gaokao performers humbly admitted his success was down to his background as a resident of the capital, and as the son of two diplomats.
“It is harder for children from rural areas to do well. People like me are from middle-class families. We do not have to worry about food or clothes. Our parents are educated,” he said.
(Official statistics back up the implications of the urban-rural divide: city students have a 70% chance of going to college versus just 7% for rural candidates.)
In March the education ministry tried to level the playing field by warning against extra-curricular classes and competitions that help urban students to get into better schools. The fear was they gave an advantage to the better-off, who can afford to pay for the extra tuition, although the ministry also claimed they put additional pressure on the children concerned.
The ban on promoting the top gaokao scorers also fits in with this wider goal of reducing the weight of academic stress on high school seniors. “We need to end the blind worship of high scores,” proclaimed the People’s Daily. “We must remember other skills are important too.”
For a smaller group of students the gaokao is less relevant these days than American SAT scores and TOEFL ratings (Test of English as a Foreign Language).
According to an essay in The China Questions (published recently by Harvard’s Fairbanks Center to mark its sixtieth anniversary), there were 328,457 Chinese students in American higher education during the 2015-16 academic year. The essay’s author William Kirby, a professor of China studies at Harvard, notes that they contribute almost a third of international student payments to US universities and that students from China have now surpassed Canadians as Harvard’s biggest group of foreign students.
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