BEIJING - "A fox served fish soup in a
flat plate and invited the crane to share it with
him 'equally'. But it turned out the crane
couldn't drink any because of his long beak, and
the fox hogged it all. What does this fable tell
If you answered, "The bourgeois
declare 'everyone is equal before the law', but
this form of equality is the essence of
capitalism," congratulations, you'd be one step
closer to qualifying for graduate school in China.
If not, better luck next year.
million people sat this year's National Entrance
Examination for Postgraduates (NEEP), China's
equivalent to the Graduate Record Examinations
used in the United States. The annual test given
each January is the first hurdle most students
must clear before being
considered for grad-school admission. The majority
of its content differs based on school and major,
but 20% of the exam is a politics and philosophy
section uniform across the entire nation.
Animal fables are just one of the formats
the section uses to test students on the Chinese
Communist Party's (CCP) view of socialism,
morality, current events and history - topics
covered extensively in China's "patriotic
education" that begins in primary school. The
Ministry of Education, which writes the political
questions for entrance exams at all levels, says
on its website that one of its main
responsibilities is "Directing the work of
ideology and political education."
China has enjoyed three decades of double-digit
economic growth and recently surpassed Japan as
the world's second largest economy, there's little
acknowledgement of China's flourishing capitalism
on the exam. One test-prep textbook instructs that
"Marxism is absolutely scientific, revolutionary,
and practical. Denying Marxism's scientific nature
is harmful and wrong."
The exam does
devote several questions to systems other than
socialism though. Question 20 from last year's
test starts by saying, "In 1989, former US State
Department advisor Francis Fukuyama dished out the
so-called 'End of History' theory which says the
Western democratic system is 'the end of human
progress in social formation'. However, 20 years
of history has shown us that history didn't end.
What ended was the Western sense of superiority."
Peng Guoxiang is a professor of Chinese
philosophy at Peking University in Beijing. He
looked over a copy of this year's NEEP. "Wow,
still such questions," he said while laughing.
"The purpose is to
consolidate [the party's] legitimacy," he
continued. "They're trying to say the ideology
still works. Communism is the ideal we have to
pursue. But it's ridiculous, nobody believes it
After the catastrophic Cultural
Revolution (1966-1976) and Tiananmen Square
uprising in 1989, the CCP shifted its focus from
socialist ideology as the key source of its
legitimacy to authoritarian-directed economic
growth in what former Time Magazine editor Joshua
Cooper Ramo has labeled "The Beijing Consensus".
But next year the future of that consensus
will be on the table as China turns over about
two-thirds of its top government posts in the
Politburo Standing Committee, State Council and
Central Military Commission to a new generation of
leadership. Slowing gross domestic product (GDP)
growth and rapid inflation coupled with endemic
corruption and growing income inequality have
prompted some aspiring officials to turn attention
away from the economy and back toward China's
Chongqing party secretary
Bo Xilai, who's considered a frontrunner for a
seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, has come
to embody a movement many have deemed China's "New
Left". Earlier this year, he launched a "Red
Culture" campaign to revive Maoist ideology
through text messages, TV shows and compulsory
singing competitions praising Marxist ideals. He's
coupled this with egalitarian measures like
corruption crackdowns, low-income housing
assistance and requiring party cadres to spend
time in the countryside.
government has followed suit using the upcoming
90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese
Communist Party to flood airwaves with songs and
films celebrating China's socialist foundations
and promoting "Red Tourism" to revolutionary sites
like Mao Zedong's civil war bases in Jinggangshan
But while the campaigns may be
new, the underlying ideology never really went
away. Since the college entrance exam system was
reinstated in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution,
high-stakes exams like the NEEP and Gaokao
undergraduate exam have contained political
elements, ensuring that students can't neglect
their patriotic education.
Wang Ji is a
PhD in Marxism from Peking University who teaches
the NEEP's political subject matter at Beijing's
Qihang test-prep academy. "The US and capitalist
countries tout freedom, but it's based on the
division of capital," he said. "If freedom is
based on capital class, it's not equal. The aim of
this test is to strengthen students' belief that
socialism is better than capitalism."
Wang admitted though that the NEEP doesn't try to
be objective in how it portrays China's brand of
socialism. He referred to question 23 from last
year's exam, which asks students to choose which
describes China's current government system: A.
The CCP's great creation of combining Marxism and
China's reality B. The CCP's achievement of
leading Chinese people through a long struggle
C. A reflection of the common interests and
aspirations of all ethnic groups in China D.
The inevitable choice in the social development of
modern China (All choices are correct)
"They're not testing the ability to
recognize fact," Wang said. "They're testing the
ability to recognize the correct opinion. The goal
is to make the students achieve the same opinion
and choose according to what they learned instead
of their own mind." Maggie Ding, 24, from
Shanghai failed the exam last year and is studying
to take it a second time. She said she despises
the test, but supports the political section's
inclusion. "We are actually unconsciously learning
to support the party," she said. But it's
necessary "in order to ensure the whole country's
safety and stability".
interviewed shared her opinion saying that the
political education seen in the NEEP tests is a
way to achieve unity in ideology, which begets
peace and harmony - revered Confucian ideals in
China. An essay question statement from this
year's NEEP even alludes to the idea saying, "The
Western political party system is like a football
game. One team must defeat the other. Ours is like
a singing chorus."
Conformity to the CCP
line is also stressed in the history section,
which tests students on topics like "China's
victory in the Korean War (1950-1953)", "China's
sovereignty over Taiwan" and the Communist Party
ending the "Century of Humiliation" inflicted by
foreign aggressors. In an interview with Xinhua's
Oriental Outlook Magazine, deputy director of the
Party History Research Center Qu Qingshan said,
"Studying Party history is mainly to increase
social consensus and unity."
Peng Guoxiang laughed again when asked about
support for the political testing on unity and
harmony grounds. "That's the success of this exam
system," he said. "It's a kind of brainwashing."
"Confucius said, [seeking] 'harmony but
not uniformity' [he er bu tong]," he
continued. "I think the pre-condition for harmony
is to accept diversity."
Donnie Wang, a
25-year-old project manager from Chongqing who's
studying to take next year's NEEP, agreed in part
saying he thinks the government is trying to
"haunt young radical people's minds".
said he does support the political section though
because of the nostalgia it elicits. "When kicking
back to Mao's time our country was way weaker," he
said. "But the whole nation was as one. We all
fought one target."
In the same way Mao
led campaigns against foreign imperialists and
capitalist conspiracies to achieve national unity,
the Communist Party today is still often accused
of using foreign targets to consolidate
questions seem to target the US in particular.
Question 16 from this year's NEEP says, "In 2003,
the US and its allies launched the Iraq war, which
has caused a serious disaster for the Iraqi
people. In 2010, the US military withdrew the last
of its combat troops from Iraq. This indicates
that under the pressures of the world the United
States has ..." A. Realigned its military
deployment B. Changed its pre-emptive strike
strategy C. Shifted its anti-terrorism focus
domestically D. Abandoned unilateralism (The
correct answer is A)
According to study
guide material, A is correct because the growing
economic and military power of China and Russia
pose a threat to the US's global hegemony. The US
redirected its troops to strengthen its strategic
encirclement of China and Russia.
to tell the students China plays a fair role in
the international stage," Dr Wang Ji said about
the question. "America, on the other hand, always
does something unfair. I don't think this makes
students dislike America. It just teaches them a
long-term historical trend."
the test definitely does aim to arouse
anti-American sentiment among young people like
him. "But in truth, most people of my age know
which direction the test tries to take them," he
said. "We really don't hate the US."
23-year-old Beijing Foreign Studies University
student, who asked to remain anonymous, managed to
pass the exam last year, also said she was
unconvinced by the political content. "The
purposes of this section are mainly to unify our
thinking," she said. "Which I think has achieved
just the opposite effect on me."
agreed that the political section probably isn't
as effective as the government would like in
influencing public opinion. But he said, "The
section can't be omitted. It can't be neglected."
The NEEP and the greater political
education it tests show little sign of being
dropped. Nearly every public school in China has
entire departments devoted to socialist theory;
not to mention the private test-prep agencies like
Wang's which depend on the exams. Cutting testing
of the political education would leave an economic
hole equivalent to wiping out the math
The education will perhaps
even spread. It was announced in May that Hong
Kong may begin introducing elements of the
mainland's patriotic education starting next year.
Under the controversial proposal, primary and
secondary students would take 50 hours of lessons
each year that focus on "building national
harmony, identity and unity among individuals"
according to a spokeswoman from Hong Kong's
Education Bureau in an interview with Agence
However, online forum
discussions and interviews with students studying
for the NEEP in mainland China suggested political
testing is essentially a non-issue at present. The
overwhelming majority were concerned foremost with
how to pass the test.
According to China's
state-run Xinhua News Agency, the number of
students taking the NEEP has shot up 473% since
1999, largely because of the shrinking job market
for undergraduates. Of the six million students
who graduate with a bachelor's degree each year,
an estimated one-fourth remain unemployed, forcing
many to either settle for labor work or try
enhancing their qualifications in graduate school.
Even those who despise the political
testing in entrance exams recognize the stakes and
futility of objection. "We just want to pass the
test and have a fighting chance," Donnie said.
"We're paralyzed. You can fight when you've got
weapons but you have to suck it up when you're
Eric Fish is a
writer based in Beijing which can be reached
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