Lots of fascinating testimony has piled up, on the topic previously covered here. (Gaokao = nationwide university-admission exam in China.) Will parcel it out soon. Here is one from a reader who wishes not to be named. I have omitted only a few comments about people who have written before, using their real names. He starts with his bona fides:
I have been following the discussion on your blog, on the subject of Chinese gaokao, with interest. Now, before I go on, I feel compelled to state the facts: I had taken the SAT, and received 2400 on it (Yes, one of the less than few hundred a year ones with this result. It is utterly insane in my opinion.) So, I do want to make it clear that this isn't a loser's rant against meritocracy.
A good deal of talk has been heard on gaokao's relation to fairness.
Now let's be clear: it is fair, as fair as can be in human circumstances. But what most people don't realise, and this is the point your reader Ella Zhou has missed, is that the great fairness is its very undoing. It it weren't so fair, creating a market of hundreds of millions of people jostling for the same, limited top spots in society, it wouldn't be such a brutal test. Its inhuman brutality is in direct, linear correlation with its fairness, just as has been the case with the SAT. And frankly, what this pure meritocracy has created in Chinese history, in practical terms, is a very insecure elite, without any ways of passing on significant advantages to children, extremely liable to corruption, as uncorrupt, independent methods do not sufficiently guarantee economic or social security for offspring.
Keju, the predecessor of Gaokao, is a perfect example. When Han Wu Di created this system two millennia ago, he did not imagine it would now conclude in the logical absurdity which has been the case for approximately the last 500 years. He meant it as a supplementary system to the existing aristocracy, so as to weaken aristocratic power. Through successive dynasties, the Keju has been so perverted that officials, who must take this exam, have become mere leeches of governmental largesse, unequipped with resources of their own, and most crucially, no important advantages to progeny for achieving the same social position as parents.
For an American comparison, revisit the big-city machine politicians of the post-Civil War era. What were they known for? Corruption and non-existence of professional ethics. And what is their parallel?
Their wealth, resources, their power, lie purely within a political system, are purely extracted from politics, with little formal powers of dynastic succession. This is the perfect breeding-ground of corruption. And thus has been the nature of Chinese governance for the last half-millennium.
What makes it worse is the traditional Chinese devotion to the concept of the family. The family unit, the belief holds, is above all, and parents would be expected to do their utmost in advancing the prospects of their progeny by all means necessary, with the quid pro quo being support in old age. Now of course, this, materially, does not apply in the above-discussed case, but the strong cultural imperative, I think you can see, is there.
To be honest, had I remained in the Chinese school system, I would never even have taken the Gaokao. My parents would have expended maximal resources in giving me preparation in a foreign language (and if they were well-connected they would know that German rather than English is an easier ticket for school admission), and ideally secured me a place in one of the nationally sanctioned foreign language schools.. and avoided the exam altogether, thus isolating me from hundreds of millions of potential competitors for opportunity. One should note that German instruction is provided at far less rigorous and exhausting level than English instruction in China, and the level of preparedness would have varied much more greatly depending on personal resources (i.e., ability to find, and afford tutors). As I said, in China, fair equals brutal.
In fact, I would have likely gone to the No. 2 Foreign Language Institute in Beijing, and found a way, through bribery or some other mechanism (life-opportunities are harsh in China), to the Foreign Ministry, where I would have gotten a foreign assignment. And I would make no apologies for this either, as prospects for average university graduates in China, even elite ones, are extraordinarily bleak. I was born into a red-diaper family, and given the abundance of chances of failure in the Chinese system, and its inhuman brutality, no precaution, or ethical lapse, would frankly lack warrant for any loving parent. I would find it difficult to object to even the bribery, as much as I am devoted to rule of law, parliamentary democracy, and so forth. Such is the reality of Chinese life.
I think you can see broken the system is. A Chinese person is expected to have, on a psychological level (not materially or economically, but psychologically), much more social mobility. Meritocracy is supposed to reign supreme. But of course, China-watchers don't realise that meritocracy, in the manner as has been applied in China, equals ethical lapses. Singapore is not a very good example, as almost all Singaporean elites send their kids to boarding schools overseas (UK, Australia, Canada), thus skipping the Singaporean meritocracy altogether. They proceed to elite Sinophone universities like Univ. of Hong Kong, from these places, without the hassle of Chinese-style meritocracy, being evaluated, as Western applicants, on much looser bases. If this were not possible, corruption would be much greater. In Hong Kong, the popular fashion is either British boarding schools, or various international boarding schools. In Taiwan, corruption, as in China, reigns supreme....
I hope this letter serves you well, and helps you understand the nature of the Chinese system a bit better. The discussion, as I have observed on your blog, is quite ephemeral, and does not at all reach the level of candour that exists in China only privately.