China's Gaokao College Entrance Exams: Extreme Pressure On Students, Boom For Local Businesses

Day one of China’s grueling Gaokao college entrance exam began Friday -- about 9.2 million Chinese high school students have registered to take the notoriously difficult exam. While most students that have spent months preparing for the test have likely been dreading the test’s arrival, many businesses look forward to it -- with verything from the predictable jump in sales of  mundane products like school supplies (pens and pencils) to the more unexpected spike in sales of lucky charms. This business boom is now known as the Gaokao economy.

According to a report by state-run Xinhua News Agency, ahead of this year’s exam, which will last through Saturday, hotels in the proximity of testing halls have been booked up by hordes of students and their families. Nearby restaurants offering free water and “brain food” are filled to capacity, and even nearby temples are seeing increased donations for those who pay homage to higher powers in hopes that it will help their children perform well on tests.

“We get a lot of students and their families at this time of year,” Hou Dongling, from the Shanghai Confucian Temple, said. “They come to pray for a good result, as the temple is known for the God of Wisdom. The peak time is usually the weekend before the exam.”

To put in perspective just how many people 9 million is -- it exceeds the entire population of New York City, America’s most populous city. In Beijing, attempting to book a hotel at the last minute would prove to be futile. According to Xinhua, a search for a “gaokao hotel” on Ctrip, a Chinese travel website, came up with no vacancies for this weekend.

Similarly, in Shanghai, parents are willing to shell out as much as 5,000 yuan, or $815, to score rooms at nearby five-star hotels, because that is only what’s left available. Hotels have even been catering their businesses to target these Gaokao parents, offering a “home away from home” experience that will make students more comfortable and supposedly be more conducive to studying.

Restaurants have also taken the cue and offering up Gaokao meals in the days leading up to the make-or-break test. And health stores have been offering supplements to help students with studying. Products that claim to boost energy or promote memory retention have been spotted around Shanghai.

“It’s the same every year,” a cashier at a drugstore near a Shanghai testing center said. “During peak times, we can sell dozens of bottles of fish oil.” The Gaokao test continues to be spawn controversy -- whether it’s the grim reports of many students crumbling under the pressure to succeed and even committing suicide as an escape or the bizarre stories of teachers advising students to take birth control, it seems that businesses are the only ones who look forward to the annual tests.

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