2017-02-23 13:05:20

“I will pay 1,500 yuan [$218] for a place in Intermediate Macroeconomics class!” a listing on the website Black Market reads. “Anyone who has a seat in the class, please take the time to read this!”

The poster, Lin Yuling, is enrolled in the Economics Double Major program at Peking University, one of China’s top schools. She is having a hard time registering for the courses she wants. “[Intermediate Macroeconomics] is so popular that, once enrollment opened, all of the spots were taken within minutes,” she told Sixth Tone.

February is course-selection season for the program, a three-year curriculum offered by the university’s National School of Development, a research and teaching unit. With about 1,000 students admitted each year from universities across Beijing, the program is a popular choice for students studying other disciplines who want to pursue a second major. For the most desirable classes, applicants exceed the number of spots by up to five times.

The second phase of course selection began on Monday, allowing students to drop classes they had initially chosen in favor of other credits. Black Market, designed in stark black, white, and orange, launched just in time. After completing a simple registration process, students can post listings on the website seeking classes they couldn’t get into, in the hope that another student will want to trade course enrollments.

“This is a platform where students can post the classes they want or are willing to offer,” said Wang Zhihao, the developer of the website and a student in the economics program. Wang, whose primary major is information science, said the idea for Black Market came to him in September last year when he noticed social media posts by fellow students looking for spots in courses. “I wrote the code during winter vacation and asked some friends to test the website before I launched it on Feb. 10,” he said. 

Visits to the website were initially scarce, until Saturday, when the economics program’s account on messaging app WeChat republished an article by Wang in which he explains the new website. Daily site visits surged to 4,000 the next day and peaked at 6,000 on Monday, when the class dropping and reselection period began.

But the Black Market experiment quickly turned into a lesson about what happens when demand far exceeds supply. Wang intended for the website to be a platform on which to simply exchange information, but students soon put price tags on their course enrollments. Sellers asked for between 100 and 300 yuan per class, and buyers offered everything from free meals and study tips to hundreds of yuan in cash.

Zhang Xinyue, a senior student who sold her place in a course for 99 yuan on the platform, thinks the website is a brilliant idea. “It increases the efficiency of changing courses, and it is very easy to use,” she told Sixth Tone. 

Before the website came along, students usually posted to online school discussion boards or in WeChat groups when they wanted to switch classes. The sale of class registrations has also been reported at other universities around China.

By Tuesday, more than 200 users had registered on Black Market — almost 10 percent of all students in the economics program.

But Lucia Yang, a senior student at Beijing Foreign Studies University who exchanged classes with another student through the website, isn’t entirely convinced of the website’s value. “This year, I’ve found it harder than ever to enroll in courses,” she told Sixth Tone. Yang said she suspects that Black Market may have encouraged students to enroll in courses they don’t necessarily want to take, just to sell their places on the website.

Wang said that he expected some paid deals to be made through his website, but that he did not foresee the prices being so high. “I think it is a free market, which means you can post your ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ freely,” he said. But the plethora of posts offering or asking for payment caught the attention of the National School of Development, who approached Wang and asked him to change the code so users are no longer able to add messages to their listings.

Lin’s offer of 1,500 yuan was the top price on the website. She said she would be glad to pay such a fee for a four-credit class taught by her favorite professor. “There are two other classes on the same subject taught by different teachers,” Lin said, “but one of them is dull in teaching, and the other is tough on grading.”

Now that prices are no longer visible, Lin is not optimistic about her chances. “It will make it harder for me,” she said. As of Thursday, no one had taken her up on her offer.

(Header image: A view of the west gate of Peking University, Beijing, July 5, 2012. Zhan Min/VCG)