What Happens When the ‘Gaokao’ Rewards Who, Not What, You Know
On July 3, officials in the eastern province of Shandong announced the results of an investigation into a high-profile case of identity theft involving the gaokao — China’s national college-entrance exam. In 1997, a local student named Gou Jing lost her chance to attend a vocational school in Beijing after her homeroom teacher conspired with local officials to steal her score and send his own daughter in her place. The fake Gou Jing’s family made extensive use of local connections to con the system, helping the imposter maintain the ruse all the way through college and eventually into a job in the country’s civil service.
That same day, Shandong officials held a press conference to go over the conclusions of a separate, unrelated investigation into gaokao fraud in the province. That inquiry, which dated back to 2018, found an additional 242 cases of gaokao identity theft in the province prior to 2006, many involving means similar to those used by the Gou Jing impersonator.
In high school, I was always told to simply do my best. But I’ve since come to realize it’s not just the student who needs to work hard — the gaokao can put entire families to the test. And students with superior family resources or connections have a way of getting a leg up on the competition, even before they enter the exam room.
Fiercely competitive, the gaokao is held up as a beacon of hope and class mobility in China. As such, instances of fraud like those uncovered in Shandong tend to result in widespread anger. But not every case is so clear-cut, and it’s hardly unheard of for families to do what they can to tilt the gaokao playing field in their favor, even if they don’t use extreme measures like stealing another student’s identity. Every year, for example, so-called gaokao migrants change their household and student registrations to provinces with smaller populations, more universities, and less competition. Other students take advantage of vaguely defined and loosely regulated bonus point schemes to boost their scores by becoming ethnic minorities overnight or procuring “national second-level athlete” certificates.
As with so much else in Chinese society, this is often accomplished through connections, or guanxi. Take the case of another Shandong student, Chen Chunxiu, for example. The parents of the girl who stole Chen’s score relied on a network of contacts in the local post office, records division, and public security bureau to forge the needed documents and keep Chen in the dark.
Nor is the problem limited to Shandong. According to a 2012 analysis of recipients of bonus gaokao points, almost 60% had family members who were bureaucrats, cadres, private business owners, or officially recognized “professional technical personnel.” Of the 31 cases of fraudulent ethnic minority documentation identified in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing in 2009, most of the guilty parties had parents who were officials — a class with the connections needed to get their children’s household registration details changed.
When some people in a given area are benefitting from personal connections, it alters the playing field for everybody, forcing other families to seek their own bargaining chips. In 2008, the student with the top unadjusted score on the liberal arts version of the gaokao in Chongqing’s Wushan County lost his chance to go to Peking University when his point total was eclipsed by other candidates once bonus points were factored in. According to reports, local teachers were advising parents to “think of other methods” to gain access to top universities.
I still remember how the above-mentioned 2009 investigation into gaokao fraud in Chongqing got the parents and teachers talking in my hometown in the northern province of Henan — famous for having one of the most competitive gaokao in the nation. One parent rationalized the cheaters’ behavior: “If you have the chance to get an inside track (for a university spot), why wouldn’t you? It’s your children’s future at stake.”
The importance of the gaokao to a student’s future makes it easy for parents to justify crossing lines to give their kids an edge. But just because the game has more players doesn’t make it any fairer. Those with the ability to stretch the rules typically already enjoy better access to educational resources than their peers. Their use of guanxi only serves to widen existing inequalities and pass on privilege from one generation to the next.
Ironically, for all the media coverage of offending parents and officials, we rarely get to hear the thoughts of the students involved, including what they think about the “advantage” of having a family member who knows the right person, or parents willing to break the rules to secure their future.
Whether actively or passively, the young test-takers who participate in these acts are also taking part in the adult world of guanxi. When caught, some choose to rationalize the choice. One student, who had moved from a province with a high number of gaokao participants to another, less competitive, province admitted in a media interview he was a “gaokao migrant” but denied that his actions exploited a loophole. Rather, he saw it as a reasonable choice that helped him get into a better university.
Others defend their parents for taking a risk and making a hard choice, even after it backfires. A student who lost their university place after his father was caught altering his ethnicity bore no resentment. “Yes, my father was wrong, but he did what he did out of love for me. I forgive him.”
When I was a senior in high school, there were two topics that always seemed to come up when my classmates and I talked about the gaokao. The first was how hard it was to test into a top university as a student from Henan; the second was who was getting bonus points and why. It was frustrating: As is so often the case with guanxi, very little was cut and dry. When one student bests another similarly competitive student for an award, and the former happens to have connections on the committee, how can you tell if any lines were crossed?
The truth is, we quickly came to terms with the fact that some of our classmates would get additional points because of their family backgrounds and connections. And we all shared an unspoken desire: to also be this “lucky.”
Despite the occasional scandal, the gaokao enjoys widespread support among Chinese parents and students, who generally consider it the fairest way to determine who gets to go to college. And over the past decade, reforms and improvements to government information systems have made it harder for students to directly assume someone else’s identity. All the cases identified in the Shandong investigation were from 2006 or earlier, for example.
The Ministry of Education has also gradually sought to restrict the practice of awarding bonus points on the gaokao for personal achievements. And in January, it stripped schools of their already limited abilities to set admissions requirements for certain types of students to curb enrollment corruption and fraud.
Yet even these changes have not completely alleviated people’s concerns over the unfair competitive advantages enjoyed by some test-takers. And every case of unfair competition further undermines people’s confidence in the gaokao as a great equalizer. More transparent competition is the only way to strengthen society’s respect for the rules and ensure success is dependent on something other than a lucky birth.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: People Visual, re-edit by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)