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    12 years of study, all for a single exam
    12 years of study, all for a single exam
    EDUCATION

    12 years of study, all for a single exam

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    Photo: EPA-EFE/Hao Qunying
    Is China’s college entrance exam testing political loyalty?
    Is China’s college entrance exam testing political loyalty?
    EDUCATION

    Is China’s college entrance exam testing political loyalty?

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    In writing exams, students are usually graded for use of language, writing style and clarity of thought.

    But for millions of Chinese students who are taking the annual gaokao college entrance exam this week, the first section of the marathon test – Chinese language and literature – felt like a test of political loyalty.

    The essay questions varied slightly by region, but the vast majority featured questions highlighting political buzzwords created by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who could stay in power for life after presidential term limits were scrapped in March.

    Students study for the punishing gaokao college entrance exam.
    Students study for the punishing gaokao college entrance exam. Photo: EPA-EFE/Hao Qunying

    In previous years, the national exam, which is the sole criterion for college admission, rarely included essay questions on politics.

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    It is reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era, when students were asked to write about “an exciting episode of the Great Leap Forward” or a “letter to the people of Vietnam” during the Vietnam War.  

    The megacities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, plus the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu wrote their own test questions, while candidates in other regions got a standard “national exam paper.”

    In Beijing, candidates had to write a 700-word essay on the development of youngsters in the “New Era,” or on environmental conservation using the title “Picture of the Clear Waters and Green Mountains.”

    Both “New Era” and “Clear Waters and Green Mountains” are associated with Xi Jinping’s political discourse.

    Posters of Xi Jinping, who is now able to rule China indefinitely.
    Posters of Xi Jinping, who is now able to rule China indefinitely. Photo: Chinatopix via AP

    During the Communist Party Congress last October, “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” was enshrined in the party constitution, making Xi the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

    He also styles himself as a leader who can make history and bring China into a new era.

    “Clear Waters and Green Mountains” originates from a column Xi wrote in 2005, when he was the Communist Party chief in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

    After he visited a village, he wrote that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver.”

    ‘Clean waters and green mountains’ in the city of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province.
    ‘Clean waters and green mountains’ in the city of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province. Photo: Shutterstock

    Zhejiang is considered an important base for Xi, who spent five years in the wealthy coastal province as party chief.

    This year, test takers in Zhejiang province had to write an essay on the “spirit of Zhejiang,” a buzzword mentioned by Xi Jinping during the G20 Summit in 2016.

    Other essay questions touched on the “China dream” and even the Xiong’an New Area, an ambitious project initiated by Xi last year to turn rural farmland into a metropolis.

    However, it is unclear whether the essay questions were ordered from the top – or if education authorities designed the questions to show their political loyalty.

    Students scatter textbook pages onto the ground in a stress-release exercise before the gaokao.
    Students scatter textbook pages onto the ground in a stress-release exercise before the gaokao. Photo: AFP
    My Chinese test
    Viola Zhou, multimedia producer, Inkstone (and gaokao-taker)
    When I was in high school, we mostly wrote Chinese essays on social or philosophical questions.
    I remember the topic I got at gaokao was: “People who clap for others from the sidelines.”
    We were supposed to discuss whether cheering for other people’s successes is just as good as becoming high-achievers ourselves.
    We weren’t asked about party propaganda or to quote the president, but writing those essays was still a struggle.
    The structure was always the same: a flowery beginning followed by personal experience and discussion. To impress the exam graders with heartfelt essays, I had to make up lots of personal stories that never happened to me.
    We did not have real freedom to express ourselves. The articles had to be positive (and kind of trite): people are good by nature, working hard pays off and the future is always full of hope.

    Backlash

    The essay questions have become a trending topic on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, with some questioning whether politics should play such a big role in academic examinations.

    “Are the Beijing and national papers designed to recruit civil servants?” a Weibo user wrote.

    Another user said: “Language is sentimental. The questions should be about poems and stuff, it doesn’t need to be so rational and political.”

    Students are monitored while taking the gaokao exam.
    Students are monitored while taking the gaokao exam. Photo: Wang Jian/Xi'an Evening News

    Political climate

    Political commentator Johnny Lau said the gaokao essay questions are a barometer of China’s political climate.

    “After the reform and opening-up policy was implemented [in 1978], the essay questions were very straight forward,” Lau told Inkstone, adding that many questions centered on literature and philosophy.

    Lau thinks that the largely political essay questions could be a form of ideological control: “It is similar to how Mao Zedong asserted control over young people.”

    Here’s a tip for candidates next year: read the People’s Daily and watch as much state television as you can.

    Grace Tsoi
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    Grace is a senior multimedia producer at Inkstone. She was previously a senior producer for BBC Chinese.
    Grace Tsoi
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    Grace is a senior multimedia producer at Inkstone. She was previously a senior producer for BBC Chinese.
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