It is a cold January evening in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province in China, and the sun is just about to dip below the city’s grey horizon as the students of Tianjiabing high school trickle sluggishly forth from their classrooms. At the school gate, their parents — some chatting in hushed tones, some still rolling in silently on electric scooters — are waiting. One girl, in her last year of school, stands behind the accordion gate talking to her mother, from whom she receives words of encouragement and home-cooked dinner in a plastic box; the girl, who will take the college entrance exam (gaokao) in just five months, must stay in class for another four hours. She reaches her arms over the gate and waves in an exaggerated farewell gesture to a friend in the year below who is going home for the day; the life of Chinese high schoolers is suffering, and they know it.
Their parents know it too, and it’s why many of them — from Tianjiabing and other high schools — took to the streets to last May to protest an announcement handed down from Beijing that the wealthy coastal Jiangsu would be allocating 38,000 spots in its Tier 1 universities to students from ten of China’s poorer inland provinces — at the cost of those places going to Jiangsu children. On the day after the announcement was issued, over a thousand parents flooded the area around the provincial Ministry of Education, shouting and carrying signs that read “Fairness in education! Oppose the gaokao admissions reduction!” Videos and photos shared on social media showed local police arresting, beating, and carrying off incensed parents; and there was at least one report of self-immolation — a popular, and often less than fatal, tactic of rage in China. Similar protests occurred in 13 cities across Jiangsu as well as in the populous and rich Hebei, the other province hit hardest by the quota reduction.
At the Tianjiabing school gate, one mother, who declined to give her name, explained her reason for attending the protests: “Jiangsu’s students about to sit the exams are suffering in their classrooms until 9.30pm every day, but they are giving more opportunity to students from the backwards provinces.” Her anger, however, was not aimed at the people of those poorer provinces but towards big-city elites.
Official residents (or hukou holders) of first-tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing receive preferential treatment when it comes to education; indeed, the acceptance rate for Beijing students to first-tier universities is 24 per cent, while in Jiangsu province, it is 9 per cent. This is partially an artefact of the system; locals get preference to local universities everywhere, but most of China’s best universities, such as Tsinghua, Beida and Fudan, are in Beijing or Shanghai. But it’s also a result of the vested interests concentrated in China’s metropolitan elite. And the oft-cited statistic, which has long chafed at Jiangsu parents, was brought out again when the announcement came down that their children’s opportunities to attend a prestigious university would be reduced further — yet Beijing and Shanghai were not given a similar large-scale reduction. “Jiangsu students score higher on the gaokao than Beijing students,” the woman said. “It’s not fair.”
The Jiangsu protests speak to the interests of China’s provincial urban middle-class, caught between disdain for poorer areas they see as unfairly compensated, and annoyance at richer ones that suck up the best resources. The urban middle-classes are the bedrock of the Communist Party’s political support — but also increasingly vocal in speaking out in defence of their own interests. Though 91 per cent of students in Jiangsu who take the gaokao (compared with 79 per cent in Jiangxi, one of the poorest provinces in China) are admitted to some form of university, in the midst of China’s tightening white-collar job market and diminishing returns for education, middle-class parents are anxious for their children to reach the best school possible. Although complaint about this state of affairs initially stem from intensely personal interests, some argue that it’s broadening into a new sense of collective action.
Wu Qiang, a political science professor at Tsinghua who studies protest movements, said that incidents like the gaokao admissions reduction protest, which are discussed widely on social media, have helped to develop a sense of political solidarity in the Chinese middle classes. Until recently, Wu said, the Chinese middle classes have been ignored as a political group. “For a long time, when it came to politics, the middle class they had no voice, no power. There was no outlet for political participation, and there was no one who would speak for them,” he said. But in recent years, Wu says, this has changed, largely due to the advent of social media. When changes occur that challenge middle class families’ wealth or status — such as the gaokao admissions reduction — they can take to social media to complain and organise demonstrations. After such crises occur, Wu says, the participants become more conscious of themselves as a political class.
Wu’s analysis was reflected in the litany of posts on mobile app WeChat subscription accounts like “Parents of Nanjing Test Takers” and “Household Knowledge and Tips” that, often in angrily red and boldfaced text, highlighted the unfairness of the quota reduction to Jiangsu students: “It is said that, in all of China, there is one group of students that suffers the most: They are known as Jiangsu gaokao takers,” one typical post began, “[Do Beijing students need lower scores] because Beijing’s education system is more backward than Jiangsu’s? We think not!”
In another widely shared post entitled, “In the gaokao quota reduction, why are [the ones to suffer most] always the middle class?” the author explained that the most vehement protesters were middle class because “the real bigwigs have for a long time now looked down on Chinese education.” The author pointed out that Wang Sicong, son of billionaire tycoon Wang Jianlin, spent his entire academic career, from elementary school to university, abroad. And it was not only China’s wealthiest opting out, the author wrote, asserting that more than 80 per cent of government officials of a department-level or higher ranking send their children abroad.
Though this number is hard to confirm, the perception of widespread disinvestment in Chinese education among the “bigwigs” is revealing of increasing collective consciousness in a middle class that feels trapped inside the Chinese education system. Lin, 42, the mother of a Nanjing middle school student who withheld her name because of the sensitive nature of the issue), also saw the policy in class terms, comparing it not to US affirmative action, but to the second US war in Iraq: “The Bush government launched the Iraq war, but I guess most of the soldiers, they’re from the lower class or middle class families,” she said. “Very few who sacrificed their life for the country are from those upper class families.” Though the comparison may seem extreme, it is easier to understand in the context of unbelievable pressures put on students by the gaokao, preparation for which is routinely likened a “torture” or “prison,” and produces several dozen suicides every year.
Though Lin’s daughter, Amy, is only in the 8th grade, Lin says she has been plagued with anxiety about her daughter’s higher education prospects since Amy was in elementary school. Amy is a lively and witty young woman who routinely scores at the top of her class in English. At 13 years old, she’s already spending four hours a day in extracurricular studies. Though Amy works hard, she is mostly indifferent to math and physics; and Lin worries that this, combined with Amy’s iconoclastic bent, will ultimately prevent her from succeeding inside of the rigid Chinese education system. Lin said she fears that, come gaokao season, Amy will not be one of the 9 per cent of Jiangsu students admitted to Tier 1 universities.
For this reason, Lin has already decided that she will try to send Amy to the United States for university. Over the past ten years this recourse, once taken only by the super-wealthy, has become increasingly common among the upper-middle and even middle classes. In the aftermath of the quota reductions, a wealth of study-abroad agencies seized on parents’ despair to promote their services on social media, assuring them that study abroad was still a feasible path. One woman, promoting the affordability of studying in Spain on the Wechat account “Goal: Study abroad in Spain,” asked parents, “If the state is, at present, unable to furnish us with enough resources to foster our development, why should we hang ourselves on the old tree? After all, we must live, and there are always other choices, there is always another road to take.”
But even for the most affordable of study abroad options, some middle class parents will inevitably be left out. Damien Ma, the co-author of the influential book In Line Behind a Billion People, about changing Chinese demographics and the scarcity it’s engendered, said that among the middle classes “there are people who are stuck, and they have to continue to subject themselves to higher competition.” But he added he doubted that this bubble had grown big enough to change the system. At the same time, however, whether or not the tens of thousands of middle-class parents who were affected by the gaokao admissions reduction choose to eventually send their child abroad, the incident has reinforced for them the unfair pressure put on them by the Chinese education system — and made them increasingly aware of exactly where they sit within it. Lin feels that, when it comes to her daughter’s education, the sacrifice the state has spared Beijing yet asked Jiangsu parents to take in stride is simply too large.
“We are not ones to seek shelter in a foreign university, but it does give her more chances,” she said.