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Society & Culture

Institutionalized Inequality: The Gaokao Exam and the Urban-Rural Divide

May 31, 2019
  • Mikaila Smith

    J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School

In just a few weeks, approximately ten million Chinese students will sit for the infamous gaokao (高考) exam, China’s university entrance exam. The test lasts nine hours and the resulting scores almost single handedly determine whether students will attend an undergraduate institution and exactly which institution will admit them, thereby setting the stage for their future career. 

Although some research shows that 21st century exam-takers feel less pressure due to increased options (through pursuing alternative career paths and earning degrees abroad, for example), this high stakes environment has earned the gaokao a global reputation as one of the most brutal educational assessments in the world. 

Examination fraud is now classified as a criminal offense in China, and the entire nation is known to grind to a halt during the days that the test is proctored. While the gaokao was originally hailed as a meritocratic system that could, in theory, equalize opportunity across socioeconomic levels, it has come to be criticized as having the opposite effect. 

The pressure of the test prompts families to pour every resource possible into helping their student prepare—often making enormous sacrifices in the process, as this New York Times article illuminates. This inevitably means that families with more resources are better positioned to enlist tutoring assistance, preparation courses, and a whole host of other investments designed to increase a student’s score. Until recently, students were also able to earn bonus points on the gaokao for athletic, artistic and scientific achievements—a program that disproportionately benefited wealthier students and was halted in 2018 due to outcry over this fact.  

The gaokao offers insight into the modern urban-rural divide in China. As economic growth has skyrocketed in the last four decades, China has become one of the world’s most unequal countries—although it must be noted that economic inequality is still higher in the United States, where citizens are also significantly less likely to be able to reap the benefits of national economic growth. 

While increased income inequality is a predictable side-effect of rapid development, the scale of China’s inequality vastly outstrips those typical predictions—the result of decades of development trends and policies that clustered capital goods in urban areas. 

Organizations like the International Monetary Fund point to China’s urban-rural divide as a major contributing factor in fostering income inequality: income of urban residents is more than three times that of those who live in rural areas. 

Educational attainment is significantly lower in rural provinces and areas, where access to quality education is limited. Because gaokao preparation begins at an early age, talented students are sometimes separated into advanced classes at a young age, leaving many students receiving far less attention due to this early classification as a ‘non-promising’ student. As the success rates of rural schools drop and enrollment rates falter, thousands of schools in rural areas have been closed outright, forcing students to make long commutes for their compulsory education. 

China’s hukou, which refers to the household registration system, is often pointed to as another significant factor in educational and socioeconomic differences between urban and rural residents. The hukou system was implemented in the late 1950s and places severe limits on citizens’ mobility. Those born with a rural hukou face many challenges if they decide to move to a city, where the vast majority better-resourced schools are located. 

Changing one’s hukou status is almost impossible, especially for low-income citizens. The hukou system is also charged with helping to create a generation of 60 million ‘left-behind’ children whose parents join China’s population of 250 million migrant workers to find better-paying, if temporary, labor in urban areas. Because of the hukou system, the vast majority of these workers are prohibited from claiming social benefits or enrolling their children in the schools of the areas they work. 

Although the Chinese Communist Party promised hukou reforms in 2013, the impact of these reforms has been highly localized, and many argue that little has fundamentally changed. Instead, hukou reforms tend to make way for a different system of control that continues to serve as what academic Fei-ling Wang terms “a very useful social control tool.” 

In recent years, discussions about the hukou system and the urban-rural divide in China have become more nuanced and critical, with an increased focus on the political economy and systems of power that continue to marginalize rural students even if they do manage to make it to university. 

Professor Wang Lifang (University of Waterloo) is one scholar who has made important contributions on this area. Wang’s research focuses not only on the oppression of female rural university students, but also on the resiliency, resistance tactics and agency that these students draw upon to fight for progress in university contexts that continue to oppress and disempower rural students. 

Addressing the urban-rural divide and rising inequality has been on the CCP’s agenda for more than a decade, but there are significant challenges. Many feel that the tensions inherent in these phenomenon pose a ‘zero-sum game’, wherein some citizens will have to lose—and just like elites in the United States and most of the world, China’s upper-middle class is less-than-eager to compromise the benefits of their urban, privileged lifestyles. 

In 1986, approximately a decade after China’s ‘reform and opening up’ period began, Deng Xiaoping foresaw increased inequality, but waved it away as a necessary problem that would even out in time. In a famous interview with 60 Minutes, Deng explained, “We permit some people and some regions to become prosperous first, for the purpose of achieving common prosperity faster. That...will not lead to polarization, to a situation where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. To be frank, we shall not permit the emergence of a new bourgeoisie.” 

Modern China has not yet lived up to Deng’s vision of a equitably prosperous society; China is estimated to produce two new billionaires each week, and ranks second only to to the U.S. for total number of billionaires. As of 2018, 43 million people still lived under the poverty line, according to data released by China.   

The CCP lists the eradication of extreme poverty is publicly as a top priority, and pundits note that the severe threat that inequality could pose to the stability of the CCP must be accounted for in analysis of this public discourse. Indeed, some argue that pressure and desire to capitalize on such efforts for political benefit has combined with other factors to result in policy initiatives that may actually leave the poor worse off.  

President Xi Jinping’s 2017 announcement of a sweeping rural revitalization campaign must be assessed within this highly-complicated context. Lawmaker Chen Xiwen announced in March that a draft of the legislative bill detailing this plan would be revealed sometime next year, and while some of the priorities (such as protecting farmland) sound promising, specifics have not yet been revealed. Strategy aside, implementation and efficacy are two longstanding central challenges for China’s top-down governance strategy. 

As students count down the final days before the gaokao exam, they are inundated with messages about the singular importance of working hard. “The harder you work, the luckier you will be” reads one motivational slogan found in a rural classroom. While working hard is certainly important, it is also important to fully acknowledge and assess the structural challenges and systems of power that prevent disadvantaged students  from realizing their potential—through no fault of their own. Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, discussions of inequality should revolve less around economic growth for all, and more around visions and strategies for economic and political justice

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