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Politics in China's exam system
By Eric Fish
BEIJING - "A fox served fish soup in a flat plate and invited the crane to share it with him 'equally'. But it turned out the crane couldn't drink any because of his long beak, and the fox hogged it all. What does this fable tell us?"
If you answered, "The bourgeois declare 'everyone is equal before the law', but this form of equality is the essence of capitalism," congratulations, you'd be one step closer to qualifying for graduate school in China. If not, better luck next year.
Over 1.5 million people sat this year's National Entrance Examination for Postgraduates (NEEP), China's equivalent to the Graduate Record Examinations used in the United States. The annual test given each January is the first hurdle most students must clear before being considered for grad-school admission. The majority of its content differs based on school and major, but 20% of the exam is a politics and philosophy section uniform across the entire nation.
Animal fables are just one of the formats the section uses to test students on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) view of socialism, morality, current events and history - topics covered extensively in China's "patriotic education" that begins in primary school. The Ministry of Education, which writes the political questions for entrance exams at all levels, says on its website that one of its main responsibilities is "Directing the work of ideology and political education."
Though China has enjoyed three decades of double-digit economic growth and recently surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy, there's little acknowledgement of China's flourishing capitalism on the exam. One test-prep textbook instructs that "Marxism is absolutely scientific, revolutionary, and practical. Denying Marxism's scientific nature is harmful and wrong."
The exam does devote several questions to systems other than socialism though. Question 20 from last year's test starts by saying, "In 1989, former US State Department advisor Francis Fukuyama dished out the so-called 'End of History' theory which says the Western democratic system is 'the end of human progress in social formation'. However, 20 years of history has shown us that history didn't end. What ended was the Western sense of superiority."
Peng Guoxiang is a professor of Chinese philosophy at Peking University in Beijing. He looked over a copy of this year's NEEP. "Wow, still such questions," he said while laughing. "Totally outdated."
"The purpose is to consolidate [the party's] legitimacy," he continued. "They're trying to say the ideology still works. Communism is the ideal we have to pursue. But it's ridiculous, nobody believes it nowadays."
After the catastrophic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, the CCP shifted its focus from socialist ideology as the key source of its legitimacy to authoritarian-directed economic growth in what former Time Magazine editor Joshua Cooper Ramo has labeled "The Beijing Consensus".
But next year the future of that consensus will be on the table as China turns over about two-thirds of its top government posts in the Politburo Standing Committee, State Council and Central Military Commission to a new generation of leadership. Slowing gross domestic product (GDP) growth and rapid inflation coupled with endemic corruption and growing income inequality have prompted some aspiring officials to turn attention away from the economy and back toward China's Marxist roots.
Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who's considered a frontrunner for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, has come to embody a movement many have deemed China's "New Left". Earlier this year, he launched a "Red Culture" campaign to revive Maoist ideology through text messages, TV shows and compulsory singing competitions praising Marxist ideals. He's coupled this with egalitarian measures like corruption crackdowns, low-income housing assistance and requiring party cadres to spend time in the countryside.
The central government has followed suit using the upcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party to flood airwaves with songs and films celebrating China's socialist foundations and promoting "Red Tourism" to revolutionary sites like Mao Zedong's civil war bases in Jinggangshan and Yan'an.
But while the campaigns may be new, the underlying ideology never really went away. Since the college entrance exam system was reinstated in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution, high-stakes exams like the NEEP and Gaokao undergraduate exam have contained political elements, ensuring that students can't neglect their patriotic education.
Wang Ji is a PhD in Marxism from Peking University who teaches the NEEP's political subject matter at Beijing's Qihang test-prep academy. "The US and capitalist countries tout freedom, but it's based on the division of capital," he said. "If freedom is based on capital class, it's not equal. The aim of this test is to strengthen students' belief that socialism is better than capitalism."
Dr Wang admitted though that the NEEP doesn't try to be objective in how it portrays China's brand of socialism. He referred to question 23 from last year's exam, which asks students to choose which describes China's current government system:
A. The CCP's great creation of combining Marxism and China's reality
B. The CCP's achievement of leading Chinese people through a long struggle
C. A reflection of the common interests and aspirations of all ethnic groups in China
D. The inevitable choice in the social development of modern China
(All choices are correct)
"They're not testing the ability to recognize fact," Wang said. "They're testing the ability to recognize the correct opinion. The goal is to make the students achieve the same opinion and choose according to what they learned instead of their own mind."
Maggie Ding, 24, from Shanghai failed the exam last year and is studying to take it a second time. She said she despises the test, but supports the political section's inclusion. "We are actually unconsciously learning to support the party," she said. But it's necessary "in order to ensure the whole country's safety and stability".
Several students interviewed shared her opinion saying that the political education seen in the NEEP tests is a way to achieve unity in ideology, which begets peace and harmony - revered Confucian ideals in China. An essay question statement from this year's NEEP even alludes to the idea saying, "The Western political party system is like a football game. One team must defeat the other. Ours is like a singing chorus."
Conformity to the CCP line is also stressed in the history section, which tests students on topics like "China's victory in the Korean War (1950-1953)", "China's sovereignty over Taiwan" and the Communist Party ending the "Century of Humiliation" inflicted by foreign aggressors. In an interview with Xinhua's Oriental Outlook Magazine, deputy director of the Party History Research Center Qu Qingshan said, "Studying Party history is mainly to increase social consensus and unity."
Professor Peng Guoxiang laughed again when asked about support for the political testing on unity and harmony grounds. "That's the success of this exam system," he said. "It's a kind of brainwashing."
"Confucius said, [seeking] 'harmony but not uniformity' [he er bu tong]," he continued. "I think the pre-condition for harmony is to accept diversity."
Donnie Wang, a 25-year-old project manager from Chongqing who's studying to take next year's NEEP, agreed in part saying he thinks the government is trying to "haunt young radical people's minds".
He said he does support the political section though because of the nostalgia it elicits. "When kicking back to Mao's time our country was way weaker," he said. "But the whole nation was as one. We all fought one target."
In the same way Mao led campaigns against foreign imperialists and capitalist conspiracies to achieve national unity, the Communist Party today is still often accused of using foreign targets to consolidate nationalistic support.
Several exam questions seem to target the US in particular. Question 16 from this year's NEEP says, "In 2003, the US and its allies launched the Iraq war, which has caused a serious disaster for the Iraqi people. In 2010, the US military withdrew the last of its combat troops from Iraq. This indicates that under the pressures of the world the United States has ..."
A. Realigned its military deployment
B. Changed its pre-emptive strike strategy
C. Shifted its anti-terrorism focus domestically
D. Abandoned unilateralism (The correct answer is A)
According to study guide material, A is correct because the growing economic and military power of China and Russia pose a threat to the US's global hegemony. The US redirected its troops to strengthen its strategic encirclement of China and Russia.
"We want to tell the students China plays a fair role in the international stage," Dr Wang Ji said about the question. "America, on the other hand, always does something unfair. I don't think this makes students dislike America. It just teaches them a long-term historical trend."
Donnie said the test definitely does aim to arouse anti-American sentiment among young people like him. "But in truth, most people of my age know which direction the test tries to take them," he said. "We really don't hate the US."
A 23-year-old Beijing Foreign Studies University student, who asked to remain anonymous, managed to pass the exam last year, also said she was unconvinced by the political content. "The purposes of this section are mainly to unify our thinking," she said. "Which I think has achieved just the opposite effect on me."
Wang agreed that the political section probably isn't as effective as the government would like in influencing public opinion. But he said, "The section can't be omitted. It can't be neglected."
The NEEP and the greater political education it tests show little sign of being dropped. Nearly every public school in China has entire departments devoted to socialist theory; not to mention the private test-prep agencies like Wang's which depend on the exams. Cutting testing of the political education would leave an economic hole equivalent to wiping out the math requirement.
The education will perhaps even spread. It was announced in May that Hong Kong may begin introducing elements of the mainland's patriotic education starting next year. Under the controversial proposal, primary and secondary students would take 50 hours of lessons each year that focus on "building national harmony, identity and unity among individuals" according to a spokeswoman from Hong Kong's Education Bureau in an interview with Agence France-Presse.
However, online forum discussions and interviews with students studying for the NEEP in mainland China suggested political testing is essentially a non-issue at present. The overwhelming majority were concerned foremost with how to pass the test.
According to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, the number of students taking the NEEP has shot up 473% since 1999, largely because of the shrinking job market for undergraduates. Of the six million students who graduate with a bachelor's degree each year, an estimated one-fourth remain unemployed, forcing many to either settle for labor work or try enhancing their qualifications in graduate school.
Even those who despise the political testing in entrance exams recognize the stakes and futility of objection. "We just want to pass the test and have a fighting chance," Donnie said. "We're paralyzed. You can fight when you've got weapons but you have to suck it up when you're barehanded."
Eric Fish is a writer based in Beijing which can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.