Lowering Education Standards for Ethnic Minorities: Rethinking Preferential Policy in China
In China, the month of June means so much for high school students. As the most well known high-stakes exam in China, an annual National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) takes place during three executive days in June. As this year’s university entrance examinations are approaching, the question of “is it fair for ethnic minority students to get extra points?” stirs a heated debate, like it always did in the past. As a Han ethnicity student, I took NCEE in 2006. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how I felt when discussing the preferential policy with my Han friends: I don’t like the policy because it is unfair to me, but I have no choice. Looking back today, I have to admit that this preferential policy still sounds controversial to me.
According to Chinese education policy, school entrance scores can be lowered for ethnic minorities. Translated into practice, the policy means ethnic minority students get an extra 10/20 points in the NCEE, which amounts to about 1.5% /3% of the total points of NCEE (usually 750 points). According to the central government, this policy is aimed at educational equity nationwide: in minority-populated areas, students may be disadvantaged due to historical, geographical, and economical reasons. Given such factors as low quality of teaching force and lack of resources in minority-populated areas, as well as maintaining solidarity among ethnic groups as the rationale, the Chinese government put forward the preferential policy. Although the starting point of the policy is to solve the problem of inequality, the theme of national solidarity stands out. Obviously, this policy has a hidden political agenda. “Choosing between ethnic and Chinese citizenship” is an identity struggle among minority groups. With the adoption of the policy, minorities feel they are less disadvantaged by NCEE, which may lead to a sense of belonging and loyalty to their Chinese citizenship.
Most criticism toward the policy arises in the developed areas where minority students enjoy as good education as Han majority, other than in ethnic autonomous regions where Han students study in same schools as minority students. In the former case, both Han students and minority students enjoy educational resources. In the latter case, minority students in backward areas lack resources, so do Han people who live in those areas. The Han children attend the same schools as minority students. They cannot afford books, do not have access to tutoring, nor do they have high-qualified teachers in class. The evidence proves that the policy itself is outdated. When it was approved in 1987, there were not so many minority students studying in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, there are many ethnic minority students studying in developed areas and enjoy the same resources as their Han counterparts. Likewise, there are great economic development im ethnic autonomous areas. In this context, it is no wonder why Han students and parents feel angry. I would like to call this phenomenon “reverse-ethnic discrimination”: in Chinese society in general, Han is the dominant group that assumes superiority and enjoys benefits that ethnic minorities do not have. NCEE is a reverse situation because Han students are subject to a position where minority students benefit while the majority students do not. This reverse-ethnic discrimination is the result of government’s political manipulation—for the purpose of national solidarity.
As I mentioned earlier, the preferential policy is problematic in itself. It is problematic also because of its implementation. Each year there are reports suggesting that some parents change their child ethnicity from Han to a minority group, so that their child could get an extra 10 points in NCEE. Preferential policy for minority students causes corruption, which is detrimental to the educational system. A metaphor NCEE is “Policeman”, which means students have to do whatever NCEE tells them to. Another widespread metaphor is “bridge”: Millions of students swarm to a bridge, i.e. NCEE, and only a handful of them can arrive at the other side of the river, i.e. college. My question is: is high-stakes testing the root of all the problems? If we evaluate a student on many criteria, NCEE being one of them, will the situation be different?
In terms of solution, I agree with many others: the preferential policy shall continue on. However, there should be better regulations. Some people suggest that allocation of university enrollments should be changed: offering extra points to students from areas of poor economic development and poor educational quality. However, this suggestion cannot meet the country’s political agenda. To my mind, the challenge for the country is how to maintain national solidarity, while achieving educational equity.