With the Gaokao less than two weeks away, one Chinese high-schooler has been all over the news recently. Zhang Tu is a 17-year-old who has been studying at one of Beijing’s top high schools for years. If he takes the Gaokao college entrance exam in Beijing, he has a very good chance of attending a top school. However, if he takes the Gaokao in his home province Anhui, where the provincial curriculum and exams are different, his chances are slim to none.

Strict rules prevent Zhang Tu from taking his gaokao in Beijing even though he has been living and studying in the city for years. These rules have to do with the hukou (household registration) system that dictates services available to Chinese citizens (such as healthcare and public education). Zhang Tu, despite his years of preparation for the Beijing Gaokao exam, has a hukou registration in Anhui Province.

To understand the importance that hukou has on a Chinese student’s prospects of entering a top Chinese university, picture this: the number of local Boston students attending Harvard University stood at 45.3% last year.

A little hard to imagine, isn’t it? At Beijing’s top schools, this statistic is real.

According to New Oriental Education CEO Michael Yu, 45.3% of students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University hold a Beijing hukou. That is, 45.3% of students at Tsinghua Univeristy hail from Beijing.

Here’s another shocking statistic from Mr. Yu: Beijing students are 41 times more likely to be admitted to Peking University than students from Anhui province. Peking University and Tsinghua University are the top two universities in China, often compared to Harvard and MIT respectively.

There was a glimmer of hope for Zhang Tu when he and his father found a “back door” into the Beijing Gaokao. If Zhang Tu emigrated to another country and sat the exam as a foreign passport-holder, he could register in Beijing to take the Gaokao there. That is exactly what Zhang Tu’s mother, an emigrant and now US citizen, tried to do for her son. Alas, Zhang Tu was not able to meet all the necessary requirements in time, and the Ministry of Education was unwilling to accept him as a foreign resident.

When word of Zhang Tu’s situation spread in the media, the response was mixed. As a long term resident of Beijing denied the same opportunity available to his peers, Zhang Tu should have received a great deal of sympathy. After all, a similar case, involving hukou-based discrimination against a middle-schooler not allowed to sit entrance exams to Shanghai high schools, had evoked public sympathy and calls for hukou reform. Now, in the even higher-stakes test that is the national college entrance exams, the response was reversed, with many angered by the Zhang family’s attempt to “game the system.”

How are we to understand this response? Those angered by Zhang Tu’s case are reacting to two things: the ‘unfair’ backdoor to coveted university seats that is available to foreign citizens of Chinese descent, and the money and international connections used to gain an advantage over fellow Chinese citizens.

There’s good reason for this resentment – the hukou system is already responsible for a great deal of social division, and there are few things that anger Chinese citizens as much as lack of equal access to education. Many universities and provinces in China do have different standards for foreigners and Chinese when it comes to university admissions. Of course, it’s not uncommon for domestic students to be rankled by international students who take seats on campus that could have gone to local students. The difference here is that many ‘foreign students’ in Chinese universities are in fact born-and-bred locals who have never left the mainland.

A recent article on “foreign students” at Jinan University in Guangdong explores just this issue. Through family connections or other means, these students hold passports to Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, and as a result sit a different college entrance exam from their peers. “Possessing a foreign ID, [they] can take part in the overseas Chinese tests, including the unified national exam for students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan and the ”two-school unified test,” since the content on these two tests are much easier than the Gaokao.” It is these system-gaming students and the money that buys them Hong Kong ID cards that the public is mad about.

Zhang Tu eventually lost his battle with the Ministry of Education. According to the latest report, he is heading to the United States for his college education, aided by his mother who is a permanent resident. Having already lost his battle with the Chinese system, he is most likely hoping to find a little more egalitarianism and a little less protectionism at the institutions there. But who knows if this is the end for young Zhang. If he finds himself applying to a graduate program at a Chinese university four years down the road, it is unclear whether or not his time abroad will help or hinder his ability to take part in a program in his home country.


This guest post was written by Elliott Bernstein. Elliott Bernstein is Manager of Student Life at NYU Shanghai, as well as translator and purveyor of China’s education related news at Education News China (ednewschina.com).


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