From where I sit - Success by fair means or foul

August 20, 2009

He Chuanyang, an 18-year-old boy from Chongqing, found himself in the national spotlight when the results of the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) were published earlier this summer.

He came first among all liberal-arts candidates in Chongqing, the most heavily populated city in China, and was admitted to the Guanghua School of Management, Peking University.

Peking and Tsinghua University are the most prestigious institutions in China - so much so that many middle-school classes with the most promising candidates often name themselves "Peking Tsinghua class". The number of pupils that schools send to those universities makes their reputations, leading to better pay for teachers and higher tuition fees for students.

He Chuanyang studied in the Peking Tsinghua class of Nankai Middle School, and his family's dream for him to study at a top institution would have come true if some parents in the same class had not complained to the city authorities.

They were angry because they learnt that more than 200 candidates in the rival Bashu Middle School had been awarded 20 "merit points" for the NCEE on the grounds that they were from an ethnic minority.

In the NCEE, even one point can make the difference between success and failure - and can feel like a matter of life and death. But to make matters worse, for years Bashu has been Nankai's main competitor, and most of those receiving special merit points were pupils from its Peking Tsinghua class.

According to the Southern Weekend newspaper, Nankai parents simply could not believe that all 200 students were real minorities. They decided to complain to the Chongqing and central government authorities, contact the media and even hire private detectives to investigate the children's status.

Bingo: on 29 June, the city authorities announced that 31 candidates had falsely claimed ethnic-minority status, and their merit points would be withdrawn.

But in a twist of fate, one of those found to have cheated in this manner was He Chuanyang. His parents - one is the chief of the local NCEE admissions office - were among 15 public servants implicated in the scandal.

He Chuanyang lost his place at Peking and was also rejected by the University of Hong Kong. His despairing mother said she could accept any punishment but insisted her son was innocent.

Falsely claiming minority status is not the only way to cheat. In May, the China Youth Daily newspaper reported the abuse of an aeromodelling competition in Zhejiang Province by the children of officials or businessmen. Their work was substandard, but still counted towards the NCEE.

In 1950, China initiated the NCEE merit-point system for the children of revolutionary martyrs and minority candidates. From the late 1970s, the system has been extended to now comprise 12 categories set by the Ministry of Education, catering for children with special gifts in the arts, sports, sciences and literature, and even those who have "conducted outstanding good deeds because of political consciousness".

According to an editorial calling for stricter regulation in China Education Daily, a newspaper published by the ministry, many merit categories "lack clear criteria and easily slip into corruption".

In an interview with Southern Weekend, Lang Rangrang, one of He Chuanyang's classmates, said: "We are not afraid of competition, but we are afraid of unfair competition."

Hong Bing is associate professor at the School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai.

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