Peking's Biggest Test

Two young members of China's Red Guards sit in a self-consciously pretentious coffeehouse in Peking. Between sips of espresso, down in the poorly-lit small room below street level, they discuss...SAT scores?

And they say East and West shall never meet.

Last year the Chinese government instituted nationwide standardized tests for all prospective college students for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in 1966. On July 20 nearly six million students took the test to compete for only 300,000 places in Chinese colleges and universities. The test covered eight subjects--politics, history, geography, physics, mathematics, chemistry, Chinese language and a foreign language. All students were required to take the tests in politics, Chinese and math, and they had to choose two or three of the remaining subjects.

A translation of the exam and analyses of the subject areas are available from the U.S. Office of Education (USOE), which recently published "The 1978 National College Entrance Exam in the People's Republic of China," which insiders predict will soon be a major motion picture.

Recent wall posters in Peking criticized the now tests as evidence of a continuing "deviation from the Maoist line of egalitarian non competitiveness" and blamed the exams on "American imperialist SAT mongering." However, the government downplayed the posters as "further counterrevolutionary critism of the regime from the notorious Gang of Four."


Meanwhile, pro-Western students put up counter-wall posters calling on the government to bring Stanley Kaplan to China so they could learn "to cram more efficiently." The Party Central Committee on Education is reportedly sending a delegation to Harvard to study the feasibility of importing other Western educational methods into China, including "Monarch notes, all-nighters, and reading periods."

Political observers see the introduction of standardized testing as the latest move in China's campaign to modernize rapidly through building up a technocratic, managerial elite, ending Mao's long-term efforts to eradicate all hierarchy and status inequalities even at the cost of slower growth and inefficiency. Experts also note the testing may be evidence of growing strength within the Chinese hierarchy by the backers of Teng-hsiao Ping, who was intrigued by the massive test-administering bureaucracy he saw when he visited the U.S. Hua Kuo-feng is a known foe of SATS, and the establishment of the tests in China may foreshadow a coming Teng coup to topple him from power.

But all of this high-level politicking is far from the minds of the students themselves. Like their American counterparts, they are unable to think of anything but their test scores and whether they can get ahead in the system. With only five per cent of the applicants getting places in college, competition is fierce and anxiety abounds.

Before the tests were re-introduced, college admission was based largely on political connections and correct ideology. Important bureaucrats pulled rank to get their children into the universities. The situation has improved since then, but the system is still not completely fair.

"Lost of cheating was still going on," says Patty Wen '80, who spent seven months at Peking University (P.U.) last year as a foreign student. "There was one case publicized in the People's Daily about a girl at P.U. Her father was an upper-level cadre who arranged for her to have special conditions to take the test in--she had a tutor there with her while taking it. She eventually admitted it and was sent back home."

The competition for P.U. is especially intense. It is considered the top school in China and recruits from all over the nation. It is the Chinese Harvard.

"Sons and daughters of intellectuals are getting into P.U. these days and people from worker-peasant backgrounds can't get in," Wen explains. "Under Mao only worker-peasant kids got in, and lots of people, many intellectuals, were sent to the countryside as part of their education."

Wen's parents fled China in 1949 because her grandfather was a high official in the Kuomintang. "He taught six years at Hartford and then changed his mind and decided Communism was good," she says, "sort of a Confucian thing, like the mandate of Heaven changed. So he returned to China to work for the foreign ministry on U.S.-China and China Taiwan relations."

That connection helped Wen, an East Asian Studies major, get into P.U. as one of a handful of foreign students. Today there are about 50. Wen wants to return to China for a little while after graduation to see friends and travel around, but she says she prefers life in the U.S. overall.

"It used to be admission to Chinese colleges was based on who could be more red, and formal education was lost in political in-doctrination," she continues. "At P.U. today everyone studies English, and the first year students are doing better than the fourth year students."