the zhongkao cometh: assessing thirty years of reform and opening

In the West, the gaokao gets the most press of any aspect of the Chinese education system. However, the zhongkao or high school entrance exam, which is administered locally may be even more life altering than the gaokao because although high school is non-compulsory in China, it is absolutely necessary preparation for the gaokao.

Indeed, one of Shenzhen’s stickier political problems is dealing with might be called zhongkao refugees: (1) neidi students who have the test scores but not the finances to attend high school and thus have to leave the city; (2) students with Shenzhen hukou who have the economic resources but not the test scores to attend high school (because there aren’t enough public schools for all Shenzhen students); and (3) students with Shenzhen hukou, middling resources, and middling grades who end up in high schools from which testing into a top college is probably not going to happen. After all, only the top four high schools in Shenzhen – Shenzhen Foreign Languages (深圳外国语学校), Shenzhen Middle School (深圳中学, Shenzhen Experimental (深圳实验学校, and Shenzhen Senior High School (深圳高级中学) – guarantee that most graduates will go to college, but even they cannot guarantee a place at Beida, Qinghua, or Fudan.

As with the gaokao, the zhongkao tests, evaluates, and ranks students’ political correctness. In fact preparing for the zhongkao is the entire content of a ninth grade education at top Shenzhen middle schools; this is the quotidian brutality of what is conventionally known as “teaching for the test (应试教育)”. To give a sense of how Shenzhen’s history is being institutionalized to serve the Party, I have translated a portion of a study guide for one of the political essay topics for Shenzhen’s 2011 zhongkao: “Reflect on Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, the invincible might manifest by Reform and Opening (回眸深圳三十周年 改革开放显神威).”

Background Material:
(1) August 26, 2010, China’s first Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen will celebrate its thirtieth birthday. The epitome of thirty years of Reform and Opening, this city was once the concrete explanation of how Chinese People understood the abstract nouns of development, wealth, and progress. For an individual, thirty is the year when s/he becomes independent [in thought and deed], and thrives; for a city, thirty years is also a pivotal year. These thirty years, from Shenzhen’s issuing the first share of stock to lowering the gavel during the first land auction; from Zhuhai’s first offering of a million yuan prize for anyone who made a national contribution to science and technology to the establishment of the first Chinese-Foreign joint enterprise; from Shantou first deciding our Country’s first private property law to the first time reforming the national system of allocating housing…each time a Special Zone stepped forward, daring to pioneer and experiment, it was a deep revolution. According to statistics, these past thirty years, Shenzhen alone created over 300 “National Firsts”. Shenzhen is the lead scout of all the Special Zones.

(2) On September 6, 2010, the Celebration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was held. Party Secretary, National Chairman, and Military Commission Chair, Hu Jintao attended and gave an import talk, emphatically affirming the successful development and construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Hu Jintao affirmed that these past thirty years, by keenly reforming, daring to pioneer, daring to experiment, and daring to forge ahead and create new ideas, Shenzhen’s perseverance has created a global industrial, urban, modern construction miracle, contributing greatly to the national project of Reform and Opening. Hu Jintao expressed that we must be unwavering both in supporting Socialism with Chinese characteristics and supporting the theoretical system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, bravely reforming, bravely inventing, never becoming rigid. Hu Jintao emphasized that not only was it necessary to continue the Special Economic Zone, but also to do it better. The Central Government will continue to support the Special Economic Zone’s functions of courageous investigation and first attempt and experiment.

(3) Thirty years have passed in a flash and for independent Shenzhen it is a time of ending and new beginnings. Facing new opportunities, Shenzhen has already made strides toward becoming a wise city (智慧城市).

A science and technology wise city is a new road of development, and the first goal in this direction is becoming an “intelligent city”. Shenzhen Municipality’s “Some Opinions about how to Transition from Industrial Economic Development” clearly states that we must take advantage of the new generation of technological revolution and information property wave, fully exploit Shenzhen’s advantages, and construct an urban development wise environment.

A humanitarian wise city. Shenzhen announced that although it was important to commemorate Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, it was more important to pay attention to people’s livelihoods, to secure democracy, to improve work conditions, to move forward in planning that concretely helps the people, to earnestly research and propose projects that benefit the people, in order that the laobaixing can truly enjoy the fruits of the Special Zone’s thirty years.

An ecological wise city. Shenzhen has prosed to become China’s first “low carbon city”, through enthusiastic investigation of planning construction, low carbon industries, public transportation, green architecture, and resource management, the city will be the first to implement and first to try, striving to set new standards for the entire country and province.

Prediction about this essay topic being assigned:

As a successful prototype of Reform and Opening, Shenzhen has received the critical attention of the entire country, also becoming the best exemplar of the successes of Reform and Opening. Therefore this year, the examiners may combine testing knowledge about Shenzhen’s thirty years with knowledge about Reform and Opening, and with attention to the Country’s fate. It’s possible that the type of questions will be analysis or multiple choice because an essay on the thirtieth anniversary of Reform and Opening was already assigned, so this year it is unlikely to be a major question.

The guide then continues with thirteen detailed questions and answers about the meaning of Shenzhen, Reform and Opening, and the necessity of continuing this path even though we are clearly in a different era from when Reform and Opening began. Of note is the rigidity of language use and proper interpretation. These questions leave no room for alternative explanations. Indeed, students are memorizing precise reiterations of Party history. For example, question number one:

深圳三十年来的变化说明了什么?

改革开放是强国之路,是我们党、我们国家发展进步的活力源泉;改革开放是决定当代中国命运的关键抉择,是发展中国特色社会主义、实现中华民族复兴的必由之路;坚持对外开放的基本国策是正确的;改革是动力、发展是硬道理、稳定压倒一切;以经济建设为中心是兴国之要;社会主义制度的优越性得到了初步显示。说明了社会主义制度具有无比的优越性;中国共产党是中国特色社会主义的核心力量等。

What do Shenzhen’s past thirty years prove?

Reform and Opening is the road to becoming a strong country. It is the vital source of our Party and our Country’s developmental progress. Reform and Opening was a crucial choice determining the fate of contemporary China. It is the necessary road to develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and to realize the renaissance of the Chinese people. Persevering in the basic policy of Opening is correct. Reform is the force, development is the hard truth, stability overpowers everything. Taking economic construction as the center [of society] is necessary to prospering the country. It is the first realization of the superiority of the socialist system. Reform and Opening demonstrates the incomparable superiority of the socialist system. The Chinese Communist Party is the core strength of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Other questions are more factual, such as, “What are China’s five Special Economic Zones? [Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, and Hainan]”, but the gist of the study guide is to remind students that memorizing the party line is a condition of getting into high school. At gaokao level, the questions and answers are more detailed, but as rigidly constructed. Indeed, the question and answer section of the study guide reproduces the political study guides on which functionary promotions are still based.

And yet.

Even high school students know that they are not learning knowledge, but rather learning to perform what is expected of them in order to get what they want: parental approval, the respect of their peers, the promise of a beautiful future. And this fundamental cynicism beats at the heart of the political essays, which, if asked in good faith would be the basis of a robust socialism.

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