SHANGHAI — The day before China’s grueling postgraduate entrance exams were due to begin, the moment Zhang Yi had been dreading arrived: He realized he’d been infected with the coronavirus.
The 22-year-old felt close to despair. A senior at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, he had spent the past 11 months furiously revising, often studying for over 12 hours a day.
But now, he was going to have to sit the tests while seriously ill. All his efforts had likely been futile.
“This was the worst scenario I could have imagined — I felt desperate,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “There was nothing I could do if I ran a fever on the days of the exams.”
The COVID wave ripping through China has come at the cruelest time for the country’s students. Many spent three years living and studying under harsh “zero-COVID” restrictions, which kept them locked inside their campuses for months at a time. Now, they are sitting life-altering exams just as COVID finally sweeps through the population.
December is normally a crucial month for young people across China. It’s the time of year when national exams are held to select top graduates to enter postgraduate education and the Chinese civil service.
During the pandemic, as China’s economy has slowed sharply, these tests have become evermore popular — and competitive. Millions of students hope that acing the exams will give them an edge in a brutally tough job market.
In 2022, a record 4.74 million people were due to sit the postgraduate entrance exams. Around 2.5 million, meanwhile, were set to take the civil service exams, vying for just 37,100 available public sector positions.
With competition for places so intense, young Chinese often dedicate an entire year of their lives to preparing for the tests. Like Zhang, many study for over 12 hours a day, for months on end, knowing that their fates could be decided over the course of two days of closed-book exams.
But this year, the run-up to the tests has been marked by unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, as the Omicron wave gradually overwhelmed China’s pandemic-control system.
A COVID patient revises for the postgraduate entrance exams inside a “fangcang” shelter hospital in Shanghai, April 2022. Liu Xiaojing/VCG
As major outbreaks took hold in Beijing, Guangzhou, and several other cities in November, Chinese authorities took the almost unprecedented decision to postpone the civil service exams indefinitely. It was the first time the exams — which were originally scheduled to take place on Dec. 4 and 5 — had been delayed in that way since 1849, during the rule of the Qing dynasty.
At first, speculation was rife that the postgraduate exams — set to be held on Dec. 24 and 25 — would be similarly delayed. But then came an announcement that caught many off-guard — and quickly turned life in China upside down.
On Dec. 8, China’s central authorities issued a document that effectively ended the “zero-COVID” policy. Anyone testing positive for the coronavirus would be allowed to stay at home rather than be taken to centralized quarantine.
Soon after, cities all over the country rapidly dismantled their pandemic-control systems. Rules requiring residents to take regular PCR tests and scan digital health codes to enter public places were scrapped. Restrictions on interprovincial travel ended.
The sudden policy change also brought important news for students: The postgraduate exams would go ahead as planned, while the civil service exams would be held on Jan. 7 and 8.
But on campuses, relief quickly turned to concern as the end of COVID restrictions triggered a massive wave of infections. Of the 10 students Sixth Tone spoke with, not a single one had avoided being infected.
Students prepare to enter an exam room to take the postgraduate entrance exams at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Dec. 24, 2022. From @上海财经大学 on WeChat
Tian Yuan, a senior at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, recalled desperately trying to prevent himself from catching COVID as he prepared for the postgraduate entrance exams.
By mid-December, the virus was spreading rapidly through the student dormitories, where people are packed in four to a room, Tian said. On Dec. 19, two of Tian’s roommates fell sick, then a third two days later. Tian wore an N95 mask at all times and disinfected his entire room, but suspected his efforts would be in vain.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape infection,” Tian said.
On Dec. 22, just two days before the first exam, the inevitable happened: Tian came down with COVID, and was transferred to a quarantine site on campus. He spent the last two days in a room with two other sick students, one of whom was also about to sit the postgraduate exams.
“It was hard,” he said. “We were not able to make any final preparations, but just gave each other mental support.”
A temporary quarantine room and meals prepared for infected students at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, December 2022. Courtesy of Tian Yuan
Students infected with COVID were not given the opportunity to sit the exams after recovering. Instead, universities divided the exam candidates into two groups — those testing positive, and those testing negative — and had them sit the exams in separate rooms.
Tian and around 50 other infected students sat their exams in a large lecture hall, while the rest of the students took the tests in smaller classrooms. For Tian, it was a miserable experience. He was running a high fever, but the room was freezing: All the windows had been opened to improve ventilation.
“Many of us were running a fever,” Tian said. “I felt like the whole world was coughing, and my head was steaming. I did poorly. I couldn’t even finish my reading in the English exam.”
By the second day of the exams, Tian already knew he had little chance of earning a place on a master’s program. In the postgraduate exams, even a slight dip in performance “cannot be tolerated,” he said.
“When I finished the exam, I was very calm,” Tian said. “I simply wanted to leave this place. It was like a nightmare. From the beginning to the end, there was nothing I wanted to remember.”
For Zhang Yi, the East China University of Science and Technology student, the timing of his infection was even worse. He started to run a fever on the morning of the first day of the exams.
“I fell asleep a couple of times during the exams. The teacher woke me up,” he said. “The reason I persisted and finished the exams was that I didn’t want to surrender easily.”
Students prepare to enter an exam room to take the postgraduate entrance exams at the East China University of Science and Technology, December 2022. From @华东理工大学 on WeChat
As Zhang hadn’t yet tested positive, he took the exams in a room for “negative” students. But he and many others were clearly infected. Around one-fifth of the students were so sick that they gave up and went home during the first day of exams, Zhang said. On the second day, only two-thirds of the candidates showed up.
“It was quite shocking to see such a big number of students giving up on their exams — it’s a big deal for us,” Zhang said.
Candidates for the civil service exam are in a slightly better position, as the delay means most of them have enough time to recover from their COVID infections before the exams begin. The COVID wave appears to have peaked in some cities. But the disruption has still caused a huge amount of stress.
Yang Linlin, a senior from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, has been preparing for the civil service exam since September. He had planned his revision period meticulously, to make sure he could take one mock test a day in the run-up to the exams.
Only a few students can be seen studying in the library on the day after the postgraduate entrance exams, at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Dec. 26, 2022. Courtesy of Tian Yuan
Then came the announcement that the exams had been postponed. Yang recalled feeling dazed as he sat in the university library: He had considered it unthinkable that the tests would be pushed back.
“I was completely at a loss,” he said. “Now the exams are delayed, I have no more mock exams that I can use to practice.”
The strain of the past month appears to have pushed some students to a kind of breaking point. Several told Sixth Tone that the exam chaos had left them feeling burned out.
Yang Chengnuo, a postgraduate student in Shanghai, has spent years studying hard and jumping through hoops to earn a job in the civil service. But, days ahead of the delayed civil service exams, she found herself doubting whether the prize would be worth the sacrifices she had made.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether I succeed in the exams or not,” said Yang, who isn’t related to Yang Linlin. “It’s no longer as important to me as it was before.”
In some ways, the decision to delay the civil service exams was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yang had put up with all the disruptions that the pandemic had brought, believing that acing her exams would be the reward. Now, she felt her preparations had been ruined through no fault of her own.
The lesson Yang has taken from the experience is that she will never have control over her own destiny, and that she will only be able to find happiness by turning inward and focusing on her own personal feelings. She has decided not to spend the final week before her exams cramming; instead, she’s gone traveling in southwest China’s Yunnan province.
“My life has been changed so much by the pandemic. I was in my senior year at university when it started. Now I’m about to finish my postgraduate studies, but I feel like things are only getting harder every year,” she said. “I decided to move on with my life; I deserve more happiness.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A woman prepares to enter an exam room to take the postgraduate entrance exams, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Dec. 24, 2022. VCG)