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Xiaoying Zhou

One Yale Student’s Journey Through China’s Unfair Gaokao System

Via Wikicommons

More and more Chinese students are willing to get grilled by the SATs rather than by the notorious college entrance exam in their own country, known as gaokao; but not all of them choose to apply for American colleges for the same reason. During my first year at Yale, my friend told me that she was a “gaokao immigrant” and only decided to study abroad because she could not take the exam in China.

I did not believe her at first. My friend moved from Hainan province to Beijing when her dad got a job offer in the capital. She studied in Beijing for five years up till the last year of high school. I knew that since her family did not have Beijing hukou, a permanent resident status, she could not take the college entrance exam in Beijing. But I thought at least she could still go back to Hainan to take her test. It is true that high school students taking the exam in Beijing can get into top Chinese universities with much lower gaokao scores than students from other areas; but it would not be too hard for her to get into a good university even if she were forced to take her exam in Hainan, would it?

But I soon realized I was oh-so-wrong about the plight of gaokao immigrants. As it turned out, not only was my friend considered a gaokao immigrant in Beijing, she was also one in her native Hainan province because she did not attend high school there.

Cut-off scores for elite Chinese universities vary for test-takers from different provinces based on population and other factors. They are low for remote provinces such as Hainan and Tibet, giving a form of affirmative action to students with relatively little educational resources. Therefore, to prevent students in provinces with better educational resources from moving their hukou to Hainan to exploit its lower cut-off score, the local policies in Hainan labels such students gaokao immigrants. If my friend were to take the gaokao in Hainan, the best school she could get in would be a second tier school (二本), regardless of her gaokao score.

On the other one hand, the cut-off scores are also inexplicably low in Beijing and Shanghai, two municipalities with the best educational resources in the country. To limit such privileges to native Beijingers, those without a Beijing hukou cannot be considered a gaokao candidate in Beijing. My friend really got the worst from both ends.

There are millions more students in China who have to face the same grim prospect my friend had to face a few years back, but not all of them have the means or the luck to get into an American college and start a new life instead. In Beijing and Shanghai, two municipalities with millions of migrant workers and where native students receive abundant college admissions privileges, the long-staged battle between the under- and over-privileged finally came to a showdown on October 18 before the Beijing Education Commission.

As an article in Southern Weekly, a Chinese newspaper, pointed out, both parties at the showdown — parents of gaokao immigrants who have worked in Beijing for years and a group of Beijing natives in their 20′s and 30′s — have valid points to make, despite some of their biases.

According to media reports, the parents protesting for their children’s right to take the exam in Beijing held mid-level positions in their Beijing-based enterprises or government branches. They may not be the most representative of migrant worker parents in Beijing, but that shouldn’t harm the validity of their demand for equal educational rights for their children. There is a larger online community composed of parents of gaokao immigrants from all over the country. The scale and organization of their website, “I want gaokao [我要高考网] shows any reader how eager, anxious and furious these parents feel about the injustice their children have to endure.

The young native Beijingers, on the other hand, are concerned about the fate of their beloved city. Regionalism and unreasonable contempt for the “provincials” aside, some of the points raised by these passionate youth are worth listening to. Both Beijing’s natural environment and civil infrastructure are pushed to their very limits by the city’s exploding population. One commentator quoted in another Southern Weekly article pointed out that population density in the central districts of Beijing has exceeded that of London or Tokyo. He pleaded, “If we don’t speak out now, we will be silenced in the future. If we lose Beijing, where would Beijingers go?”

But the showdown could have been avoided had both parties realized that they indeed face a common opponent: the numerous unjustified privileges of all those with a Beijing hukou. Had there been no such drastic regional differences when it comes to educational resources and college admissions criteria, there would not have been so many gaokao immigrants in the first place. Professor Zhang Qianfan (张千帆) from Peking University has closely followed this social issue for years, and as he would have it, the ultimate problem lies in the privileged class in the capital — mostly government officials — who are utterly incapable of giving up their current advantages.

The deteriorating environment in Beijing is indeed worrisome, but it shouldn’t in principle go against reforms of current gaokao policies. As non-native parents and students pressed on, in March this year, the Chinese Education Commission finally announced that each province would have a plan for their new gaokao policies ready by the end of this year. On August 30, the State Council reaffirmed the Education Commission’s message.

So far, Guangdong and Fujian provinces have already issued their new gaokao policies. Guangdong Province’s new policy is already in effect and in its testing period. As we approach the end of November, we shall watch closely for the latest policy changes in the rest of China, particularly Beijing and Shanghai.

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.
  • DW

    problem in china ultimately caused by privileged gov officials in beijing. more shocking news at 11

  • Bei Jialin

    Th e entire system needs to be changed urgently with much more emphasis on education possibilities other than university. I wonder how much longer they can keep pressuring the kids before they will end up with a generation of troubled adults. In my daughter’s class you had greying children at the age of 14. Away with the gaokao system!