It’s that time of the year when prayers are offered to a variety of spiritual figureheads including Confucius, Mao Zedong, Isaac Newton, and the Thinker. Over the last week, Chinese high school students finally wrote the 高考 (gaokao) or the national college entrance exam. Similar to the Indian board exams, the gaokao is high pressure for students as it is the defining criterion to get into the university system.
This year, the exams were pushed by a month (a delay for the first time since 1977) causing stress levels to spike for the 10.7 million students who took the exam.
The gaokao is one of the toughest exams in the world. Students take compulsory papers in Chinese literature, mathematics, and a foreign language (most often, English). Then, depending on whether they choose the sciences or liberal arts, they further take exams in physics, chemistry, and biology or history, geography, and politics.
While the exam is meant to be a great leveler in a highly unequal society, students from cities have clear advantages. This is because schools in cities often offer better standards of teaching. Every province sets a different exam and universities accept students based on a quota system. The defining criterion is not only academic merit but the 户口 (hukou)—a household registration system that determines where you live, study, and work.
In earlier columns, I have written about how the hukou pervades all aspects of Chinese life and how it restricts rural populations from accessing social services in the cities. This also means that competition is stiff if you don’t have the right hukou—students with a Beijing hukou are 30 times more likely to get admission into the prestigious Tsinghua University than students from the neighboring Henan province.
It is not just universities in Beijing and Shanghai but even provincial universities that are notoriously difficult to get into leading to phenomena of gaokao migrants—people moving to sit the exam in a province with an easier quota system—fraud, and protests against the system.
The education system in China has been primarily dominated by the state and funded by the government. Unlike India, private players command very little of the market share. The 2018 Amendment to the Non-public Education Promotion Law allowed for the relaxation of norms for non-commercial private schools in terms of fiscal allowance, tax resumption, favorable land policies, and so on. However, none of these privileges are accorded to commercial private schools.
On the other hand, private players dominate the educational services industry, including tutoring services, English language education, and online education. Chinese children as young as three or four begin tutoring in English so that they can get an edge by the time they reach high school. However, this has resulted in huge amounts of stress on students, particularly those in rural areas for whom a college education is a ticket to a prosperous life. One study of children between the ages of 9 and 12 showed that 81 percent of the children worried “a lot” about exams, 63 percent of them were afraid of punishment by teachers, and 73 percent of them were physically punished by their parents for lax academic effort. Over one-third of the children reported having psychosomatic symptoms at least once a week.
For the first time since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China is facing disruptions with the gaokao. Apart from COVID-19, floods in Shaanxi province and an earthquake in Kunming also disrupted the examinations—some of which have been further postponed. This year has also been rocked by identity theft scams in Shandong which has seen massive protests on the Chinese internet. Couple this with the highest rate of unemployment ever in the country, and 8.7 million fresh graduates who are currently looking at the job market. Now more than ever, stressful times are up ahead for China’s young people and they are looking to the government for help.
—Hamsini Hariharan is the host of the States of Anarchy podcast and is currently based in Beijing.