China's Unfair College Admissions System

Quotas are just one way in which the existing process reinforces the country's inequalities.
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A student takes a nap on a desk during his lunch break in a classroom in Hefei, Anhui Province June 2, 2012. (Jianan Yu/Reuters)

Earlier this month, millions of Chinese students took the exam for which they had been preparing their entire lives -- the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, known colloquially as the gaokao. For some, the process was more arduous than others. Zhang Tu, a promising high school student in Beijing, encountered a roadblock when he discovered he could not take the gaokao at his own high school because his residence registration, or hukou, was in the inland province of Anhui, where his family had lived before moving to Beijing.

Like Zhang, tens of thousands of high school seniors each year have to go back to the provinces of their official residence to take the gaokao, even if they have spent their entire lives in Beijing and call it home. Often, not only do these students have to familiarize themselves with new materials when they go back -- as the test varies from province to province -- but they also face even fiercer competition.

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Students from Beijing, though fewer in number, are accepted to top universities at much higher rates than those from other provinces (via Yiqin Fu, data via Sina, Tsinghua, and Peking University)


While it may seem counter-intuitive, competition for spots at China's top universities is less fierce in populous cities like Beijing and Shanghai than in China's more rural provinces. This is because universities located in Beijing will reserve more spots for students with Beijing hukou, and thus the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu.

China's prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui, Zhang's province of residence, and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.

A joke circulating around Weibo illustrates the inequality:

In Beijing: "Dad, I got a 530 [on the gaokao], 53 points higher than the lowest qualifying score for top-tier universities!" "Great job, son! Let's go to Shanghai for our vacation!"

In Shandong: "Dad, I got a 530, 20 points lower than the lowest qualifying score for second-tier universities!" "You're not so bright ... Don't go [to college]. Get out of here and go become a migrant worker in Shanghai."

In Shanghai: "Dad, I got a 330. Send me abroad." "Okay, son. Go get an MBA, then come back and help me. I got another group of migrant workers from Shandong this year."

Families from the provinces with money and connections often move to Beijing or Shanghai prior to the exam, hoping that their children may have a better chance at getting into the country's leading universities. These "gaokao immigrants," along with those like Zhang who wish to take the exam outside the province of their hukou, have caused natives of Beijing and Shanghai to campaign for the protection of their privileges, which some have taken to calling their "birthright."

Weibo user @创先争优310土匪 wrote, "This Weibo post serves the sole purpose of petitioning against people of other provinces taking the gaokao in Shanghai. Now is the time to see whether we Shanghainese can unite! Share this Weibo to show Shanghai citizens' stance to the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission!" The post was shared over 11,000 times.

Another Weibo user wrote, "[These provincials] break the one-child policy, have no regard for the rule of law, and can't raise their children properly. Over time, this won't just be a problem of limited resources; this will cause a series of societal problems."

"Provincials" have responded to this backlash online. Wrote @开心笑话站, "Beijing parents complain about people with different hukou coming to Beijing to take the gaokao. But even the one whose picture hangs in Tiananmen [Mao Zedong] was a 'provincial!'"

The stark difference in quotas set for students from different provinces has long been the subject of heated debate. Most Chinese universities are public, and the top schools are heavily funded by the central government as part of its campaign to build top-tier universities. Shanghai's Fudan University, for example, received nearly 2 billion RMB (about US $326 million) from China's Ministry of Education in 2011, accounting for 44 percent of its annual budget. While these universities do receive financial support from local governments and should to a certain extent admit more local students, the seemingly arbitrary quotas for other provinces are set each year by the Ministry of Education, which has never explained its policy for setting them.

"[The quota] is usually a compromise provincial governments make among themselves," stated Long Denggao, a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua University. "What you see is centralized planning in what many believe is the country's only fair competition."

Universities publish their quotas for each province every June, and students file their applications after receiving their test scores and calculating their chances. Sometimes, a college takes so few students from a given province that it does not open half of its majors, significantly limiting the candidates' options as it is almost impossible to switch majors to study what they like later on in college. Yet again, how a university decides whether to open Environmental Science or close Philosophy in a given province is based entirely on a system unknown to the test-takers.

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Yiqin Fu is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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