HONG KONG— Millions of high school students in China sat for the nationwide, highly competitive college entrance exam earlier this month. The exam is praised for giving exceptional students a chance to go to the best schools, regardless of their family background or economic status. But a bribery scandal involving a college admissions officer suggests the exam is not the only way in.
Every June, Chinese media are inundated with stories of the hard work and the anxiety felt by students about to take the Gaokao. In a country that places enormous value on education as a means to social advancement, a high score is the key to entry into the best schools.
But this year, as nine million students competed for roughly seven million spots, newspapers prominently featured stories about corruption in the country's top schools.
In one of the most prominent recent cases, Cai Rongsheng, former head of admissions at Beijing's prestigious Renmin University, was allegedly paid to admit students bypassing the Gaokao.
He now stands accused of accepting more than $1.5 million in bribes for “helping” students during recruitment.
Cai's case has shed light on the so called “special admission,” a channel of recruitment alternative to the strict score system of the Gaokao.
Yang Rui studies education policy in China at the University of Hong Kong. “Gaokao really offered millions of people opportunities, and it changed China after the open door policy in the late 1970s. But increasingly, academics and government policymakers realized Gaokao is not really fair," he said. "Many people are in much better positions than those in rural - for example - schools. Also, scores themselves only cannot tell the whole picture.”
Some universities in China are allowed to select no more than five percent of their freshmen based on extracurricular achievements.
The move was designed to offer schools more flexibility to accept candidates whose talents did not directly translate into high Gaokao scores, or were discriminated against by regional quotas that benefit urban residents.
But the “special admission” has left administrators with too much unsupervised power says Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute - an NGO that focuses on education research.
"There should be a process through which a student is recommended by the high school, and then has to go through exams at the university and finally gets enrolled via a process of performance records," he said.
Xiong said the system has instead been hijacked by administrators who have power to decide over enrollment.
Admission via bribes
Authorities have banned the practice of trading university admissions for money or favors. The Ministry of Education has issued a directive earlier this year urging more transparency and supervision.
"The government would like to have policies to require that university presidents to be responsible for the school's recruitment process, and there is also [a need for] a performance evaluation system, but the problem now is still that there is no mechanism to keep the power of administrators in check," he added.
Scandals in academia risk alienating a Chinese public that is growing increasingly wary of the preferential treatment enjoyed by the rich and powerful in many different areas.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken power with a mandate to curb corruption.
He has dispatched special investigators to government departments, state owned enterprises as well as universities.
The effort has led to an unprecedented number of indictments, but critics say Xi's approach falls short of reforming the system of unchecked power that breeds corruption.
"Xi Jinping's administration is very determined, again the question is how far and for how long," said Yang. "This is the question asked by many in China."
The most difficult part, Yang said, is that corruption is widespread at all levels of China's society.
He added, Xi Jinping cannot treat all the country, or most of the people as enemy.