Tea Leaf Nation

Is China Losing its 'Last Fair Path' to Prosperity?

Citizens may be losing faith in what looked like the last bastion of equal opportunity.

From the look of things, it's getting harder to be a cheater in China. The antifraud mechanisms used during China's most recent annual college entrance exam, commonly known as the gaokao, have been compared to counter-terrorism measures. The parallel was not entirely inapt: In early June 2014, when exam fever swept the nation, almost 10 million test-takers walked into test centers equipped with video cameras, ID card scanners, fingerprint machines, airport-style metal detectors, and high-tech monitoring vehicles that could identify radio signals beaming answers inside.

The stakes are high for Chinese teens and their parents because for most children, the gaokao score remains the sole determinant of college acceptance. For all of its problems, the ultra-grueling exam is often hailed as a great equalizer in a country where class stratification has become increasingly rigid. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds find it hard to go head to head with privileged peers. One popular saying on Chinese social network jokes that the gaokao "is the last chance to compete based on your abilities" because "after this, the boys have to compete based on who their daddies are, and the girls have to compete based on how they look." 

But cheaters are undeterred. In lieu of sophisticated chicanery that includes hidden earpieces, invisible ink, and cameras hidden in watches, some have opted for a more old-fashioned shortcut: humans who can be bought with cold hard cash. On June 17, about 10 days after this year's exams ended, China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned media behemoth, exposed a large ghostwriting scandal involving 165 people.

In the report, which the network began compiling months before the exam, CCTV journalists traced advertisements recruiting ghostwriters in the bathrooms of well-known universities in Wuhan, a large city in central China, which led to a man calling himself Teacher Li. (Chinese bathroom stall walls often function as ad hoc classified ads for all manner of illicit services.) Li told an undercover reporter, who pretended to be interested in the advertisement, that for his troubles -- pretending to be a high school student and taking the exam -- the reporter could earn as much as $8,000 for a score that won placement at an elite university, which is approximately the average annual salary in Wuhan. Even a score only sufficient for second-tier university admission would earn him over $3,000, Li added.   

Li claimed that he had bribed proctors to make sure the ghostwriters would pass the fingerprint and photo ID identifications at test centers located in small cities in Henan, an impoverished province in central China. "Imagine these small cities, where the relationship networks are tiny and everyone who matters is in on it," Li expounded to a hidden camera. Li said it takes him about $11,000 to "take care" of the proctors at one test center, and his clients are mostly children of "officials and rich people" in those small cities in Henan. In video taken surreptitiously at the test centers on the day of the exam, the fingerprint machine beeped repeatedly when a ghostwriter tried to pass with a fake fingerprint membrane she wore on her finger, but the proctor did not investigate further. At the end of the two-day exam, all of the ghostwriters that the undercover reporter had contact with completed their assignments without incident. 

After CCTV broadcast the report, the Ministry of Education vowed to punish those involved, including proctors, parents, arrangers, ghostwriters, and the would-be test-takers. Some may face criminal penalties. But catching these ghostwriters may not be enough to stem future cheating scandals because surrogate test-taking does not seem to be a new problem, nor one limited to Henan. Social media users have shared stories of their acquaintances and sometimes themselves involved in similar schemes. 

The uproar over the scandal is a reflection of China's collective anxiety over the lack of social mobility and fair play. The news is particularly wrenching to those who cling to the belief that the gaokao is one of the last bastions of equal opportunity untainted by money and power. As Zhang Ping, a newspaper editor in Henan, lamented on Weibo, "the last relatively fair path for upward mobility is now blocked."    

Photo credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Who Lectures China's Leaders?

Cram sessions for top officials are 80 minutes long and can take up to three years to prepare.  

The Communist Party Politburo is the de facto power center of China. Its members -- currently 23 men and two women -- make the policies that directly affect 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, and, indirectly, hundreds of millions more around the world. How does that ultra-exclusive body learn about the complex world outside of Zhongnanhai, the cloistered compound in central Beijing where many top leaders reside? Who gets to bend their collective ear on the issues of the day? A June 3 article in the Beijing Times, a state-owned local paper based in the Chinese capital, took a quick peek behind Zhongnanhai's gilded doors at the so-called "group study" sessions modern Politburo members attend.

The gatherings are a relative novelty in the 90-plus year history of Chinese communism. According to the Times article, they began some time in 2002 under then-leader Hu Jintao, who, like current successor Xi Jinping, was General Secretary of the party as well as president of China's one-party government. Since then, 92 sessions have been held, and 160 lecturers have had the chance to strut their stuff before the country's head honchos. The lecturers are usually relatively young scholars or researchers, aged 40 to 55, who hail from China's research institutions, top universities, science academies, and military colleges. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run think tank founded in 1977, is a favorite -- 31 of its researchers had been invited -- followed by the Development and Research Center of the State Council, which has garnered 13 invitations.

Discussion topics are usually decided by the Central Policy Research Office (CPRO), the internal party brain trust led by 58 year-old Wang Huning, himself a Politburo member and commonly believed to be the most trusted policy wonk for almost 20 years under three generations of top leaders dating from Jiang Zemin (who preceded Hu).

The sessions no doubt entail a high degree of stage management. The article notes certain requirements for presenters' "voice, tone, speed, and expression." Content, meanwhile, is carefully vetted. CPRO and the ministry specializing in the subject area under discussion -- which can include economics, law, education, military, healthcare, or agriculture, among others -- select lecturers and work with them to draft remarks. Party officials, not presenters, appear to have final approval.

The report estimates that lecturers usually take three months to prepare for a typical session. But some controversial ones, like a presentation made some time in 2010 called "how to correctly handle contradictions among the people in the modern age" -- party code-speak for mass protests in recent years -- apparently took lecturers about three years to prepare.

There's propaganda value to these gatherings. After an 80-minute lecture and 30-minute question-and-answer session, the general secretary makes concluding remarks, which are often covered by propaganda organs like China Central Television (CCTV) and Xinhua News Agency. Those final speeches are usually taken as policy signals, which indicate that the sessions may be less about learning or debating, and more about releasing hints on future policy directions to lower-level cadres and the general public. So far in 2014, three group sessions had been held: one on combating terrorism, one on deepening market reforms, and one on building a core value system in Chinese society (given that communist ideology has been effectively discarded).

The Times article, itself surely vetted and approved by a party authority prior to publication, begs certain questions. It's unclear, for example, whether the study sessions suffer from groupthink. The article claims there is usually "enthusiastic discussion" at the lectures, adding that several recent sessions led by Xi Jinping included presentations by Politburo members to one another. But given the relatively strict format of the sessions, not to mention the party's strict hierarchy, the group of 25 probably feels less than completely free to express views that oppose certain power brokers. 

Party newspaper Study Times once trumped these talks as a laudable effort to "adapt to outside changes, seek and obtain competitive advantage, and keep the vitality" of the party. The leadership seems keen to be -- or at least to be perceived as -- open to new ideas and in touch with their countrymen. That’s easier said than done; cadres who rise high enough in rank adopt the trappings of Chinese officialdom, which includes their own cars and housing, fawning staff, and even a special food supply, perks that inevitably separate them from the lives of ordinary Chinese people, and sometimes encounter grassroots backlash.

Presiding as they do over a complex nation of 1.3 billion, China’s leadership is surely aware of the need to weigh competing points of view in fashioning policy. But the format and content of the study sessions apparently adhere to strict protocols likely less than conducive to a free exchange of fresh ideas. On Chinese social media, most commenters seemed amazed that any lecture could take three years to prepare -- and wondered how the end product could possibly be timely. As long as the leadership's avenues for information gathering remain opaque, China analysts and Chinese citizens will continue to parse closely whatever glimpses they can get.