Saturday, August 14, 1999 Published at 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
China's educational elite
In Beijing a place at unversity is seen as the ticket to a well-paid job
By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing
It was the middle of the day, but the cranes on the building site in one of Beijing's busiest districts stood idle.
"Nothing to do with economic slowdown," said Zhang Guojie, pointing towards the site with his yellow umbrella. "This is for the children's sake."
Mr Zhang was one of a crowd of some 200 men and women, most in their 40s and 50s, sheltering from the sudden rain under umbrellas or plastic bags.
They were waiting outside a local middle school for the same reason the building site had stopped work.
Inside, China's national university entrance exam was under way. Their children were among those racking their brains over tests which have become a national obsession.
For three days each year, the Chinese press clings minutely to the trials and tribulations of the country's educational elite.
All construction sites near the exam venues must stop work completely and those in residential areas have to close at night, to help students rest.
Tales of public concern fill the media - like the Beijing traffic policeman who rescued a teenage boy from his mother's car, stuck in one of the city's notorious traffic jams, and whisked him to the exam hall on his motorbike.
For the families of the hopefuls it is a tense period. "No phone calls, no visitors for the last few weeks", said Mr Zhang from under his umbrella.
Some hotels offer special room rates for parents and children seeking peace and quiet. At least one Beijing branch of Mcdonald's stayed open late to let revising students pore over their books in the cool of its air conditioning.
In the exam rooms themselves, students are often lucky to have an electric fan against the summer heat, and medical teams stand by in case the temperatures and the nerves become too much.
So the rains on exam day came as a relief and did little to deter the parents gathered outside the school.
At 5.30 the doors finally opened to reveal a crowd of teenagers - they were instantly engulfed in a scrum of concerned relatives, offering encouraging words and energy-enhancing drinks.
There was the usual post mortem - "What kind of question was that?" asked Mr Zhang's daughter Xiaoling, as they emerged from the crowd.
"We had to write about brain transplants", she said. "I though it was meant to be creative writing, not science fiction."
There were many similarly anguished looks. China's education system - and the exams in particular - have been much criticised for enforcing rote learning and memory skills, rather than creativity.
It is something the authorities have promised to change. This year there was no test of memorised basic knowledge in the Chinese language exam in Shanghai - only reading comprehension and creative writing.
Even the politics exam, that bastion of the prepared and often barely understood answer, held some surprises. Students were asked how China could make its state enterprises profitable again - in what some speculated was less a test of Marxist political correctness and more a plea for useful ideas.
Such changes could pose a challenge to the revision industry, which has spawned thousands of private classes and textbooks.
Perhaps those involved might like to visit one Beijing hospital, which this year advertised doses of oxygen for exam participants, suggesting this would help speed the flow of blood to their brains.
The extraordinary emphasis placed on helping the exam candidates stems not just from traditional respect for education, but also from the fact that some 70% of those taking part are only children, born under China's one child policy.
"My whole family's relying on me to get a good degree and support them," sighed one student.
A university place
And at a time when China's guaranteed social welfare system is fast disappearing, the importance of a place at university, seen as a ticket to a well-paid job, cannot be exaggerated.
China's leaders have been struggling to meet the demands. This year they are offering 50% more university places, through measures such as allowing more students to live off campus.
In part they are hoping to control rising youth unemployment. Yet even now more than half the three million hopefuls face disappointment - for some there is the option of private colleges, at least 90 of which have sprung up in Beijing alone.
But either way it is expensive - even state universities now charge tuition fees. And though some offer scholarships for the less well-off, educationalists worry that the divide between the urban elite and the rural poor will only grow.
Despite the reforms, a mere two or three per cent of China's children can enter university. Yet for the lucky few, now trying to secure the last remaining places at college, no effort is spared.
When China's most popular Internet home page offered students online advice on how to use their exam results to get into the best university, it had 200,000 page views in two hours.
As Zhang Guojie told me, huddling under his umbrella outside the exam room, any method was worth trying.
"I lost half my education in the cultural revolution", he said. "I've got to make sure my daughter doesn't miss her chance ..."