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How Chinese students cope in the world’s most competitive education system

November 16, 2020 |   Andrea Hoymann

The Chinese education system is without a doubt the most competitive in the world. Every year, nearly 10 million students take the Gaokao, the gruelling two- or three-day end-of-school exam that determines which universities students can gain admission to, and what direction their careers and futures may take. As one of our own employees described it: “It’s hard to imagine for non-Chinese people how decisive the Gaokao is. The results determine whether you will be admitted to the country’s top universities and even one slightly lower mark in one subject can limit your opportunities.”

With this intense level of competition comes enormous pressure to succeed, anxiety about potential failure, and sheer exhaustion due to the effort needed to keep up with peers. In this high-pressure environment, it’s not surprising that many Chinese students can become disillusioned or burned out.

In this article, we take a closer look at what drives this level of competition, how this manifests at universities and what the consequences are, and what Chinese students are doing to cope.

The concept of ‘involution’

In China, the term ‘involution’ has been quickly gaining ground. Originally, involution was a term used to describe a certain type of agricultural economy, where an increase in output from the increase in labour was only enough to cover what the additional workforce was itself consuming. In other words, each additional worker consumed the extra amount they produced, leading to an equilibrium and a stagnation.

But now it has come to mean a circular trap, a never-ending energy-draining loop in which seemingly all of Chinese society is now caught. 

“If involution is said to originally have referred to a structural pattern in agricultural society which is repetitive, lacks competition, and prevents progress, then involution today is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, feeling as if you’re running in place and constantly having to motivate yourself day in, day out,” as described by anthropologist Xiang Biao, a professor at the University of Oxford and the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

There are two main aspects that define this particularly Chinese brand of involution: the intense competition, and the inescapability.

“Everyone in China has the same goals: Earn more money, buy a home of more than 100 square metres, own a car, start a family, and so on,” says Xiang. “This route is very well marked, and everyone is highly integrated. People are all fighting for the same things within this market.”

And it’s not just the homogeneity of people’s goals that makes it so competitive. As achieving these things becomes more difficult with each passing generation, every generation must work harder than the last to reach these same goals. Each generation, the competition seems to start earlier and earlier; today we see parents fighting to get their kids in the best day cares, fearing that if they don’t, their child will be left behind.

But opting out of this endless competition is not really an option for most. “In China, there is pressure not only to be moving upward, but also to not be moving downward,” says Xiang. “Recently, a postgraduate student in China told me he once applied for a job at McDonald’s. When the manager there saw his education history, the first thing he asked was: ‘Have you considered what your parents might think?’ This was a very heavy question. He didn’t say, ‘you’ve wasted your time studying’ or ‘you’ve flushed your tuition fees down the drain’. Instead, the question he asked made the matter an emotional and moral issue, as if it was some kind of betrayal. In other words, by stepping down the social ladder, you’re essentially committing moral betrayal.

“… People know full well that the results aren’t what they desire, but they still want to compete. They don’t know other ways to live if they’re not competing, and if you quit the competition, you’re left facing moral pressure.”

Education is of course a huge aspect of this involuted culture, with many seeing a good education as key to reaching these goals. “The current middle-class anxiety is real,” says one student. “Even if children are no longer required to achieve intergenerational upward mobility like their own generation, they still need to prevent their offspring from falling and being afraid of being thrown out. Education has become a defensive strategy here. If you don’t participate, you are out."

“I feel that the entire campus and the entire society are full of huge ladders. From the sky to the earth, everyone is on the ladder, climbing up desperately.”

How does this intense competition play out at universities?

When many Chinese students enter university for the first time, they expect to leave behind the immense pressure of their Gaokao preparation. Many envision university as a time of making new friends, exploring new interests, and experiencing arts and culture. Instead, students find themselves back in the same intense atmosphere as at the end of school, with people too busy studying to even make friends with others. This is how one student described it, in the article “When GPA Is King: The Prisoners’ Dilemma for Young People in China’s Top Universities”: “When I return to the [university’] dormitory building, my mind is full of the nightmare atmosphere of the end-of-school exam preparation.”

Students’ hopes of finding themselves and exploring their own interests are dashed soon after entering university, with senior students, counsellors and teachers all advising students to focus not on personal fulfilment, but on their grade point average (GPA). This is because GPAs are largely used to determine admission into masters and post-doctorate degrees, internships, and jobs. For the most popular degrees and sought-after positions, even a GPA of 3.7 (out of 4.0) may not be enough to get a look-in.

“No matter which path you take in the future, grade points are the basic guarantee,” explains one student.

This leads to students crafting their course selection not on what they are passionate about or what would challenge them the most, but what is more likely to guarantee a good grade. Students shy away from difficult subjects that may have a devastating effect on their GPA should they perform poorly. They eschew liberal arts-type subjects, which are not weighted as highly. Every assessment becomes just another opportunity to best your peers – for example, if the assignment is a 3000-word essay, students will submit a 5000-word essay in the hopes of getting a better score. Students will even race each other into the library as soon as it opens to secure a good spot. In the end, going to university is less about broadening one’s horizons than simply doing what is deemed necessary to reach those top spots.

“The resources at the top are too limited, and in order to compete for these things, everyone can only compete on one crowded track,” says one student. “Maybe the previous classmates could take some detours, more or less, but newly enrolled students, under the predecessors’ instructions, almost always walk up and down the shortcuts that the predecessors tread.”

It’s unsurprising that such a competitive environment can leave many feeling highly stressed. As one teacher described it: “Competition means that not everyone can achieve the goal … Many students are in a panic because of this. I see some people procrastinating, avoiding meeting their teacher. Another psychological mechanism is that the more you value every choice, the more anxious you are. Once you fail to go up to a certain level, you will immediately fall into self-doubt and blame yourself. One of my students could barely breathe because of an essay. He felt that if this article was not written well, his grades would be bad, and the bad grade would affect his whole GPA. He couldn’t accept that things weren’t proceeding as expected.”

Many find themselves simply going through the motions and not actually caring much about what they learned – as long as they obtain a degree from a top university, little else matters. “In just two years, how can I only be considering employment status and the school’s title?” lamented one student. “I have done a lot of things … but I only feel that I’ve become a bit ‘long in tooth’ and have not gained a sense of certainty or ‘ownership’.”

How do Chinese students cope with this intense competition?

Many are starting to recognise the shortcomings of tertiary education in a society so geared towards involution. Not only does it cause huge amounts of stress for the students, to the point where some see suicide as the only way out, but it results in graduates who have lost their love of learning, and are afraid to challenge themselves and think outside the box.

“The school has become a scientific chicken farm,” says Gan Yang, dean of Xinya College in Tsinghua University. “What is studied is how much hormones can be used, whether the lights can be brighter, and how to stimulate students to remember more things. We are educating for the use of the market for employment. Many external factors prevent students from calming down and thinking about what kind of person they want to be and what kind of life they want to live. It is a question that students should think about most at the undergraduate level.”

Some Chinese universities are taking steps to combat this. Qu Jingdong, professor of sociology at Peking University, encourages students to perform a play every two or three years, as a way of breaking them out of the endless cycle of studying and competition. He says the “slow nature” of putting on a play is highly beneficial for students – it takes time to memorise a script, arrange a scene, rehearse. Given that space and time, students can be liberated from the role of competitor and simply get to know their fellow students. “Today’s education must slow down the pace of society, so that you can leave traces of life on others, and let others leave traces on you,” says Qu.

Similarly, Professor Gan asks his first-year students to go to the countryside to do farm and factory work for a couple of weeks. This again encourages comradery – there is no mobile phone reception, so students are forced to socialise. But it also gives them some much-needed grounding, particularly for those aiming for government positions where they may eventually be designing policy that affects these rural workers, and it gives them time to escape from their usual rhythm of life.

Liberal arts schools are also slowly gaining in popularity, with many recognising that assets like creativity and intellectual curiosity are essential assets in a fast-evolving global economy.

Overseas education also remains a huge drawcard for those students looking to escape this relentless competition – and for their parents too. Far from the “tiger mum or dad” stereotype of parents putting a lot of pressure on their children to do well in school, one survey in fact found that many parents who sent their child abroad for their education did so because they did not want their child to have the same high-pressure Chinese education they had. These parents want their children to have a broader worldview, to be fluent in English and Chinese, and still have a competitive edge over other local Chinese students without the stress of performing well academically. While living abroad, Chinese students also have the space to branch out, explore different interests, find new hobbies and, as Professor Gan says, “[think] about what kind of person they want to be and what kind of life they want to live”.

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