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The Gaokao: Meritocracy under Question?

June 19, 2015 by Blog Editor

On the 7th and the 8th of June this year, like any other year, millions of Chinese final-year high school students sat in exam halls to take ‘Gaokao’, the annual national entrance examination for higher education. To the majority of Chinese pre-university students, especially those who cannot afford to go to foreign universities for higher education, the exam is considered a life’s most important test as good exam results could lead them into the doors of China’s best universities and guarantee them glittering careers. To ensure a clean exam environment for fair competition, tight security and strict invigilation are provided to against cheating behaviors every year.

A middle school student sits behind a pile of books and notes in Anxian

This year, officials and media workers took their seriousness about unethical exam behaviors to the next level. In Luoyang, Henan Province, officials deployed a drone to detect unusual signal above exam venues. The device was reported to cost around hundreds of thousands RMB which is equivalent to tens of thousands of British pounds. Authorities also investigated a group that had been making money from hiring surrogate exam sitters after an undercover journalist from the Southern Metropolis Daily sat in the exam for an examinee and exposed the gang’s operation in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. A news report later revealed that such “cheater-for-hire” services are priced between 70,000 to 100,000 RMB and mostly done by university students from Hubei Province.

Although the reporter revealed his identity and voided the exam paper, the report received heavy criticism as many questioned the legality and ethicality of sitting in an exam as replacement for others. At the same time, however, more people expressed anger about government negligence and corruption without which such organized cheating activities would have never happened.

Fairness of ‘Gaokao’: a fragile dream?

Although the gaokao has always been criticized for how stressful and stiff it is, proponents believe that such a selection method is still fair for contemporary Chinese education system as meritocracy based on a unitary standard of acceptance can counterbalance inequality created by economic and social disparity across different parts of China.

However, the underlying fact behind the cheaters-for-hire phenomenon does not only point out the insufficient safeguards at exam venues but also reflects China’s long-existing problems of unequal access to education resources and the growing monetization of social rights that every citizen should have access to in principle.

The practice of hiring a surrogate exam candidate to complete the gaokao on behalf of students is a service rendered exlusively for the privileged who have the money and power to secure such resources. In some other cases, students with better “connections” would have larger chances to be accepted through “autonomous admissions” held by individual universities and do not even need to go through the gaokao process.

After China’s three-decade implementation of the One Child Policy, a fair education opportunity can be enormously important to a family that lives with high emotional and economic expectationsof the next generation. Any government that fails to protecting these equal rights could easily stir up public criticism and social discontent. To allow more students to compete in a fairer environment, sufficient safeguards at exam venues need to be installed, but a clean bureaucracy is also vital to ensure the sustainability of rules.

By Shirley Zhang
Shirley Zhang obtained her MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.  Contact: – See more at:

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