Lenora Chu's new book comes out of an unusual decision she and her husband made. Living in China, they decided to enroll their 3-year-old, very much American, son in a Chinese school. Their son learned Mandarin and thrived academically. But Chu wasn't impressed with everything she saw. She set out to study both positive and negative elements of the Chinese educational system, up to and including the quest for university admissions. She writes of the discipline of Chinese students but also provides a firsthand account of the impact of the priority on memorization over creativity, and a university admissions system that many try to game.
The result is Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve (HarperCollins). Chu responded via email to questions about the book.
Q: You note the way geography has a big influence on admissions to Chinese universities. Can you explain the policies -- and the problems they create?
A: China has a household registration system called hukou. It’s an internal passport system that ties a person to his or her place of birth, and there are two types: rural and urban. In general, a student is required to attend high school and take the college entrance exam in that locality. Here’s the issue -- entrance exams for university vary in content depending on where a student sits for the test. And universities also allocate more admissions spots to some localities.
Generally, big-city kids benefit from this system. For example, Tsinghua University -- commonly called the Harvard of China -- accepted roughly 200 kids from both the city of Beijing and the entire province of Henan in 2016, despite the fact that Henan has four times more people than Beijing, at 95 million people. Students in Shanghai enjoy similar odds.
Education policies have not kept up with the realities of China’s migration patterns. Some researchers have likened this household registration to a caste system or to “Chinese apartheid.”
Q: The university entrance test is of supreme importance in China. What are some of the things you saw students (and parents) do to prepare?
A: It’s an endless marathon of bending heads over books that last year of high school. I follow one Chinese student throughout the preparation process; I call him Darcy. Six months before, he told me, “my life is dandiao” -- a single color. Monotony. His days at school were plotted with precision: six o’clock rise for a seven o’clock school bell. Morning calisthenics. Meals of rice, vegetables and soup stolen in the time between classes, with 15 minutes allotted for dinner. A 6 p.m. prep class held him for four hours, until a 10 p.m. evening dismissal, after which he headed to his room for some shut-eye. He would start all over again within just a few hours. Weekends brought more classes. He sleeps late only on Sundays, his day of rest. “But even then, I think about gaokao [the national admissions test],” Darcy said. “It comes at the expense of everything else.”
After the test was done, Darcy liked to say he experienced life for the first time. Dad bought him an iPhone. He got driving lessons. He was allowed to travel for the first time with his friends. Note, though, that Darcy was a rural hukou holder. In an unguarded moment, he let slip that his father divorced his biological mother and remarried a Shanghainese woman. A pile of cash exchanged hands. Having a “mother” with Shanghai hukou qualified him to attend high school in Shanghai and sit for college exams in the city. An illicit move, yes, but it was life-changing.
Q: You note the role of gift giving/bribery in the educational system. How does this play out in university admissions?
A: Nearly 10 million students sit for the university exams -- though the numbers are falling year by year -- and only two-thirds will snag a university spot at one of China’s 1,200 colleges. Only 3 of 4 percent will ascend to what’s called the top tier.
The system is high stakes. In the admissions process, back doors can be found when resourceful parents meet a receptive administrator. There have been some fantastic cases of bribery and corruption; in one of the most famous cases of recent years, a Renmin University official confessed to taking more than $3.6 million in exchange for helping students to secure spots at the college or for other favors surrounding the admissions process. (Obviously, this is the exception, not the norm.)
Gray areas are enabled in part by the fact that China’s recent education reforms have introduced human judgment into the college admissions process. As you lessen the importance of entrance exams, universities have begun to introduce other ways to select for college -- such as interviews and teacher references, or extraordinary talent in music or athletics. That opens the door to possible human error, as well as the trading of influence, and corruption.
Here’s an example of how catering to your superiors in some way can make all the difference: I’ll use the example of Darcy again. The year he applied, Jiaotong University was one of 70 universities allowed to participate in “independent recruitment,” and the admissions office invited hundreds of students from all over China to “interview.” Students who passed the interview might be awarded bonus gaokao points -- or be allowed to score at a lower threshold than normally required for admission.
Because he passed this interview, Darcy needed only clear the cutoff for first-tier universities -- that cutoff was 423 that year -- to get into Jiaotong (rather than the bona fide, higher cutoff for Jiaotong). How was Darcy selected to participate in “independent recruitment”? By his high school teachers and administrators.
Education reform is tricky. It’s fair to say an anticorruption crackdown has made the Chinese more wary of participating in back doors, and anecdotally there seems to be real progress. Yet others say illicit activity has only been pushed underground.
Q: In your discussions of elementary and secondary education, you are critical of what appears to be the squelching of creativity and curiosity. How much of this is a problem?
A: The traditional Chinese classroom discourages students from exploring their own interests and from expressing contrary opinions. These activities are central to how Westerners define the creative process. Electives -- having the freedom to choose subjects of interest -- are only recently being introduced into more progressive urban schools. But the Chinese are very much aware there’s a problem, and encouraging creativity is a goal of the latest national education reform plan.
Here’s the long-term positive view: creativity can’t be permanently quashed -- only discouraged in its expression. Most Chinese who have come through the system aren’t skilled at offering new ideas, especially with a superior in the room, and they’re certainly not accustomed to problem solving in groups. It’s just not the way the Chinese were educated or culturally conditioned to behave.
That doesn’t mean there’s little creative thought going on inside the head, nor does it mean individual Chinese can’t thrive once they enter the right environment. And, don’t forget that most educated urban Chinese bring a high level of math, science or technical skill to the equation. Innovation is not only about creativity -- it’s about having the skills, as well as the ingenuity and opportunity to push the envelope.
Sometimes it’s a matter of training. “It’s my job to unwrap the chains,” said one Chinese chief technology officer who works with Chinese engineers on this very issue. “Some of them are extremely quick studies, and they become the cream of the crop.” And if you look at what’s happening in the marketplace in China, entrepreneurs are very much pushing the envelope, especially in industries such as drones, social media, sharing apps and mobile payments.
Q: Based on what you saw and wrote about, what should American admissions officers be thinking about when evaluating Chinese applicants?
A: The number of Chinese undergraduates at American universities has grown 14-fold over the past decade or so, to roughly 135,000 in 2016, not to mention another 125,000 in graduate schools, according to the Institute of International Education. Admissions officers should realize that the Chinese are very savvy when it comes to college applications. Information about what seems to work and what doesn’t is shared very widely and quickly. You’ll see loads of résumés that look the same. For a time, participation in Model UN was a line that showed up on every CV, as was the internship at a recognized multinational company. Lately the Chinese have become aware that Americans value community service.
The challenge is to truly distinguish one applicant from the next, and that’s why the interview is important. Find a way to suss out information that can’t be coached or prepared for. Ask unexpected questions. Also be aware that just as there’s an enormous coaching and prep industry around SATs and other parts of the application process, there’s also one burgeoning around interview prep. How quickly will the kids learn to master these interviews before admissions offices must change their approach again to better differentiate their applicants?
Another important point: the Chinese are so obsessed with college rankings they’ll generally prioritize a higher-ranked school over one that’s actually a better fit culturally or financially. One Chinese friend got a full ride to go to the University of Missouri, but because New York University was ranked slightly higher in her desired field, her parents sold their house to pay for it. I think Mizzou would have been a better fit. Chinese applicants will need some help thinking about fit, and the indication of intent part of any application should be carefully considered with this in mind.