More than 10 million Chinese students take gaokao exam in spite of floods, earthquakes, COVID-19

Society & Culture

Neither COVID-19 nor floods nor earthquakes could stop China from organizing the nationwide college entrance examination or gaokao, which many young Chinese say is the most stressful test in the world.

illustration of a student in china taking the gaokao, or college entrance exam, amid historic flooding in china
Illustration by Derek Zheng

On July 7 and 8, over 10 million Chinese students sat for the gaokao (高考 gāokǎo) — the country’s hypercompetitive national college entrance exam. While the test is famous for its high stakes and grueling nature, this year’s exam was exceptionally stressful due to a variety of unusual circumstances. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exam month was postponed from June to July. In addition, several health regulations were announced (in Chinese) to protect students. They included requiring that all testing candidates monitor their temperatures in the 14 days leading up to the exam and isolating students in separate spaces if they show up on the test days with symptoms of illness. 

Floods and fake IDs 

It wasn’t just COVID-19 that disrupted this year’s gaokao.

On the second day of the exam, July 8, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake shook the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province, causing (in Chinese) 100 students in the Dongchuan District to run out of the classrooms mid-exam. After about seven minutes, students were able to return to their desks and resume testing. In Anhui Province, which is combating the worst floods in decades, hundreds of students in a local town failed to arrive at their exam sites in time on July 7. The large-scale delay forced local education officials to postpone the day’s tests to today, July 9. 

Not all accidents were nature’s fault. On July 8, a student in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, suddenly stood up (in Chinese) in the middle of the exam and tore up the answer sheets of two other students. This incident and the offending student were “handled appropriately,” and the two students who had their papers torn up were given time to complete new answer sheets.  

Outside of examination sites, a college admissions scandal has shaken the country’s trust in the fairness of the gaokao. Last month, a 36-year-old woman in Shandong Province decided to seek justice after she found out that someone stole her identity after taking the gaokao in 2004 to attend a college. The revelation, as well as a string of similar identity theft cases that have gained attention, prompted the Ministry of Education to emphasize its zero-tolerance policy for cheating and other fraudulent behaviors.