Ministry of Education Bans the Idolization of China’s Top Gaokao Scorers

The countdown has started for China’s national exams, the gaokao. Although the top scorers of these decisive exams are usually praised as champions, the Ministry of Education now warns against their idolization and orders schools and media to use ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ as their guide.

China’s Ministry of Education has issued an official announcement this week that it is no longer allowed to idolize the top scorers of China’s upcoming National Higher Education Entrance Examinations, usually abbreviated to gaokao (高考, ‘high exams’).

The notice was issued after a top-level conference on May 8, which focused on the enrollment process for China’s national graduation exams.

The gaokao will take place in June and always attract nationwide attention – both offline and online – in the weeks before they start. The exams are the most important moment of the year for those taking part; they are a prerequisite for entering China’s higher education institutions and are usually taken by students in their last year of senior high school.

 

“It is strictly prohibited to give publicity to gaokao top scorers.”

 

“It is strictly prohibited to give publicity to gaokao top scorers,” the head of the Ministry of Education, Chen Baosheng (陈宝生), was quoted saying by various state media outlets on Weibo, adding that “those who do so anyway will be dealt with accordingly.”

In the Ministry of Education’s announcement, it further said that education departments all over China should use Xi Jinping’s socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics as a guide to their work relating to the college national entrance exams this year.

The exams, that take place during a period of 2 days, are so important because scoring high grades for this exam can give high school students access to a better college, which enlarges their chances of obtaining a good job after graduation. Because the exam results are potentially life-changing, the gaokao period is generally a highly stressful time for students and their parents.

Those who succeed in becoming the number one scorers in their field and area, also known as the gāokǎo zhuàngyuán (高考状元, ‘gaokao champions’), are usually widely praised by Chinese media and educational institutions.

Names and photos of top scorers published in 2009.

Year on year, the scores, names, photos, and stories of those students excelling in the humanities (文理状元) and science (理科状元) are publicized by national, provincial, and local newspapers.

Changing Propaganda: From Top Achievers to Harmonious Students

The announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Education to ban the promotion of the top scorers in the university entrance exams became a much-discussed topic on Chinese social media today.

In their report of the ban, Party newspaper People’s Daily published pictures showing how students and schools are preparing for the upcoming exams.

The photos are full of socialist-style propaganda-like slogans (e.g. “trials and hardships strengthen determination”), encouraging students to work and study hard and to repay their parents for the efforts they put into them.

Various pictures show how, to prepare for the decisive exams next month, students in Hengshui, Hebei, bring in meals for the class and then eat together from the same bowl in order to not waste valuable study time.

Instead of promoting and propagating the stories of China’s top scorers, Chinese state media now seem to shift their focus to students’ hard work and collaborate efforts to prepare for the exam.

In line with Xi Jinping’s socialist thought, which also promotes equality in education and the nurturing of “a new generation of capable young people who (..) are well-prepared to join the socialist cause”, the official focus has now apparently changed from top achievers to the average, harmonious and social student.

China’s higher education is extremely competitive, and so is the battle for the high gaokao scores; although as much as 9.75 million senior high school students are going to take part in the 2018 University Entrance Exams, only less than 100 of them will have the opportunity to become an actual gāokǎo zhuàngyuán or ‘top-score champion.’

Inequality behind the ‘zhuàngyuán’?

The gaokao top-score achievers are not just the minority when it comes to statistics, they are also the ‘elites’ of the supposed socialist society.

After claiming the title of 2017 Beijing University Entrance Exam top scorer, the 2017 zhuàngyuán Xiong Xuan’an was interviewed by Chinese media outlet The Paper and addressed some controversial issues on becoming one of the top scorers.

Xiong, during the interview, said that for students coming from rural areas, it is much harder to get into good universities, saying: “People like me are from middle-class families. We do not have to worry about food or clothes. Our parents are educated.”

He added: “We were born in large cities like Beijing. We simply got better education resources than the rest. Students from other places and rural areas are not able to get these benefits.”

 

“The top scorers nowadays are, generally speaking, coming from prestigious families.”

 

Over the past years, Chinese parents are increasingly spending huge amounts of money towards their children’s education, varying from extravagant summer programs to hiring ‘gaokao nannies‘ to support children taking the exams. Spending money on high-quality private schools and tutoring starts as early as kindergarten.

But not all families can afford top-notch schools for their children. Official statistics show that in 2017, dispensable income per capita in China is approximately 25,974 yuan (±US$4072).

Xiong told reporters that his parents are diplomats, saying: “It made my learning path easier. And the top scorers nowadays are, generally speaking, coming from prestigious families and are good at studying.”

Perhaps the general promotion of top-score achievers used to be an efficient way for state media to promote hard-working attitudes and the ‘Chinese dream‘, but the emergence of the more elite zhuàngyuán now has come to show how differences in educational resources have created inequality in educational opportunities.

Weibo Discussions

The recent ban on stories about the 2018 gaokao top scorers is an indication that the Chinese Ministry of Education now wants to de-emphasize worsening disparities within society, but not all commenters on Weibo agree with this shift.

“Why can’t we give publicity to the top scorers?”, author Tan Yantong (@谭延桐) asks on Weibo: “There is so much rotten entertainment news (..) and bullsh*t news, unbearable news, ruining our value system – why don’t you ban that sort of news?”

 

“What’s the use for me to become a number one scorer now?”

 

“Then you might as well ban the top scorers in sports,” others say: “That’s also highly competitive.”

“Now what’s the use for me to become a number one scorer anyway?” another commenter jokingly says.

But there are also supporters of the new guideline. “This is a good start,” one other Weibo user writes: “Elementary education is general education – not elite education. How to provide efficient and equal education is something the Ministry of Education needs to figure out through new strategies.”

By Chauncey Jung and Manya Koetse

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