What a near-riot in support of the right to cheat says about the perverse incentives in Chinese education.
Parents bid farewell to students about to take China's nationwide college entrance examinations this month in rural Anhui Province. (China Daily/Reuters)
"We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."
This was the chant of an angry mob of more than 2,000 people that had gathered, oddly enough, to protest a strict crackdown on cheating during China's college entrance examination earlier this month in Zhongxiang, Hubei Province.
The reason for the crackdown, as cited in this amusing Malcolm Moore dispatch
for the Telegraph
, is the ubiquity of cheating in Chinese schools, where examinations are usually the sole determinant of students' academic fate. In such a set-up, denying students the right to cheat, well, cheats them out of a fair shot.
China's education system, which in many ways reflects ancient Confucian principles, places an overwhelming emphasis on memorization, recitation, and examination. Courses in critical thinking largely do not exist and students are not encouraged to engage in rigorous debate in class. The final year of high school is devoted almost entirely to the gaokao, the nationwide college entrance examination which, in Zhongxiang, is what led to the frenzy over the crackdown cheating.
In theory, the gaokao is China's great equalizer: A farmer from rural Sichuan has every bit a chance to succeed as does a politician's son in Beijing, no small accomplishment in a country with such income inequality. But -- abuse over the quota system aside -- the overwhelming emphasis on examinations is blamed for creating graduates who lack creativity and innovation, both skills the Chinese government hope will spur the country's next phase of economic growth.
But in the meantime, the simple fact remains that, in Chinese schools, you'd almost have to be crazy not to cheat on your tests.