SHANGHAI -- By any measure, China's national university entrance exams -- the Gaokao or Higher Exams -- are significant, both in scale and consequence. This year, some 9.4 million students took the annual three-day test, which began Sunday -- hoping for the results that many believe will determine not just whether they can attend college, but also if they can gain a share of the spoils of China's economic growth.

Indeed, the exams have become something of a national obsession for China’s young people -- and for their parents, most of whom have only one child, due to China’s long-standing family planning policy, and in many cases missed their own chance to study due to China’s political turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gaokao_1_2015 A father waits outside the Chen Jinglun High School during the first part of China's annual national college entrance exam in Beijing on June 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

The result: construction sites near exam venues stop work during the exam period, while drivers are told not to honk their horns or even whistle, lest they disturb the students. Cities mobilize thousands of police to control traffic and ensure order. Shanghai’s subway stations this week provided special exit channels so students could beat the crowds. A taxi app, Didi Dache, offered them discounted rides. And television stations broadcast hours of programming on the exams, with much debate on the exam questions. 

Not everyone is happy about it: one Chinese newspaper on Tuesday bemoaned what it called “Gaokao harassment,” complaining that local residents in one town had even been forced to turn down their television sets. And some argue that the tests, based largely on memorizing facts, harm the development of both students -- and China -- by rewarding rote learning over creativity and critical thinking.

Gaokao_1_2014 Paramilitary policemen stand guard outside a high school during the national college entrance exam in Zhengzhou, Henan province on June 7, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Yet such criticisms do little to dispel the enthusiasm of many parents, who cluster around exam venues, waiting to offer their offspring drinks and snacks. In more remote areas, where students have to travel to other towns to take their exams, crowds as large as “tens of thousands of people” gathered to see their children off.

Other parents book hotel rooms near the test sites, and stay with their children there, to ensure they are well-fed and rested -- with many hotels exploiting this mass migration by raising prices as much as 500 percent. One newspaper commentary warned families against changing their routines too much during exam times, suggesting that this only adds to the pressure on children, and “the best thing to do is to keep everything normal.”

But with the stakes so high, some resort to far from normal strategies to seek an advantage. Police in the eastern Chinese city of Nanchang this week detained nine people who allegedly organized a ring of university students to take the tests on behalf of nervous school leavers, offering them $16,000 dollars if they managed to get the high-school students a place at a good university in central China -- and far more for a spot at a top college in Beijing or Shanghai.

Gaokao_2_2015 People see off a bus carrying students who are travelling to attend the college entrance examination, or gaokao, at Maotanchang High School in Liu'an, Anhui province on June 5, 2015. Photo: Reuters

New technology has only increased the risk of cheating. Authorities in Beijing this year banned  students from wearing smart watches, and used metal detectors to check incoming students. In Heilongjiang province, police arrested a man selling wireless “cheating devices” -- small pagers through which he and his co-conspirators promised to send students the answers to exam questions. And in Luoyang, Henan province, the local “radio management bureau” demonstrated a drone, which it said would scan the sky around exam venues for suspicious wireless signals.

For those planning an honest approach, however, the pressure in the run-up is intense: Shanghai media reported recently that 70 percent of high school students in China’s financial capital -- which regularly tops the world rankings in the OECD’s PISA educational assessment for its math grades -- have to wake up at 6 a.m. to prepare for their school day. Many students also take extra study classes at weekends.

And in more remote parts of the country -- which don’t benefit from the larger quotas of places at top universities reserved by big-city governments for local candidates -- the pressure to achieve good exam grades can turn into something approaching a religion. A school in northern Hebei province attracted criticism last year, after holding a mass rally in which its students chanted exam-related slogans. Another, in southwestern Guilin, recently aroused controversy with a banner that read: “If you can handle the pressure then keep going, if you can’t handle it then at least die trying.”

Gaokao_2_2014 Family members burn offerings to pray for their children who will take the national college entrance exam in Wuhan, Hubei province on June 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters

A commentator on Shanghai’s Dragon TV noted this week: “Such an excessive emphasis on exams is a kind of illness.” And for some students, it’s all too much.

“I remember the boy behind me crying at the start of the Gaokao math exam, after he looked at the questions,” Ji Chen, now an educational consultant in Shanghai, told International Business Times. “But the invigilators just ignored him – so after a while he stopped and got down to writing.”

With such a strict system, it may be no wonder that many students mark the end of classes before the exams with wild celebrations, often involving ripping up their school books. State TV this week showed high-school students in central China throwing pages of books from an upper floor balcony into the schoolyard. “If this is happening more and more frequently, perhaps we shouldn’t criticize the students,” the TV reporter commented. “Maybe this should make the editors of the schoolbooks think again.”

Gaokao_1_2011 Students rip books during a party after National College Entrance Exams in Shanghai on June 12, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

In recent years, examiners have tried to respond to criticisms that the Gaokao is too focused on memorizing and rote-learning. The test does include one short essay question, the topic of which is now sometimes more contemporary -- or more abstract -- than in the past.

Shanghai’s paper this year, for example, provoked some confusion with its essay prompt: “People always have some hard things and also some soft things in their hearts. How one deals with these will affect whether or not one can achieve a harmony of self.” 

While another test paper asked students to discuss a recent case in which a young woman reported her father to the police, after he refused to stop using his mobile phone while driving the family car on a highway.

Yet some academics have criticized the fact that the exams are still made up mainly of multiple choice questions and others requiring short factual answers.

“The Gaokao system is the killer of imagination,” a lecturer at a top Chinese university told IBTimes. “The students I teach are supposed to be some of the brightest in the country -- but many of them are not really interested in knowledge, it’s very frustrating. The Gaokao system shuts them down, emotionally too -- you get so buried in books that you lose the human touch. At university we have to rebuild students’ capacity to be creative.”

In recent years, some of China’s top universities have been allowed to set their own additional tests in the run-up to the Gaokao, with more diverse types of questions. However, this only applies to a tiny fraction of each school’s intake. Everyone else is judged entirely on their Gaokao grades; they cannot have an interview, or submit details of their interests, voluntary work or other achievements.

Other aspects of the university entrance system have also come in for criticism: This year, for the first time, an exam paper was provided in Braille for a blind student, and more than 7,000 disabled students sat the Gaokao, a significant rise from previous years. Yet it’s still a tiny proportion of the total, in a country where many universities still require students to pass a fitness test to gain admission.

And though China has expanded the number of universities and university places enormously in recent years -- from 1.5 million new students a year in the late 1990s to 7.5 million by 2011 -- the system only allows each student to apply to a handful of universities. If rejected by these, he or she is not allowed to look for another university -- but can only take the exam again the following year.

At the same time, “All parents want their children to go to a top university in a big city,” said Chen, the education consultant. “They think if they go to somewhere remote they won’t have a chance of getting a good job.” The result is that China’s top universities -- such as Peking University or Tsinghua in Beijing, or Shanghai’s Fudan -- turn away many prospective students, while many lesser universities have vacancies: 11 percent of places at universities in central Henan province were unfilled last year, according to Xinhua news agency, with many colleges facing “a serious survival crisis.”

ChineseUniversity_2013 Parents of freshmen students sleep on mats laid out on the floor of a gymnasium at Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei province on Sept. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters/China Daily

The content of university education has also been criticized: the mass expansion of universities has led to too many similar courses, Xinhua said, making it harder for graduates to differentiate themselves in the job market -- at a time of rising graduate unemployment. Critics also say there are still too few people studying technical subjects. 

Amid such pressures, some students -- and their families -- are simply opting out of the Chinese education, and exam, system altogether.

“Many parents think the system is too cruel,” said Chen, who advises Chinese students who are hoping to study in America. “You can only apply to a few universities -- and it’s very difficult to get into a top tier university. Many parents don’t want their kids to take the risk.” The U.S. system, on the other hand, offers “much more flexibility,” she said.

“You can apply to more universities, take the SAT test again if you want to. One student from a top Shanghai high school told me he thought he had almost no chance of getting into Fudan University -- but he thought he might be able to get into the University of Virginia.”

More and more middle-class and wealthy Chinese families are now sending their children abroad to study -- even before university: by last year, more than 110,000 Chinese students were attending high schools in the U.S., up almost 50 percent from three years earlier. In the same period, the number of students taking the Gaokao in China has fallen, from around 10.5 million in 2010, to 9.2 million in 2013 (though it has recovered slightly in the past two years.)

Yet for many of China’s less wealthy families, there is little choice but to pin their hopes on the Gaokao. And for all the criticisms, many Chinese academics still seem to agree that the Gaokao is, in its own way, relatively fair, giving poor students from remote areas the chance to compete with those from the big cities -- and with even the top universities offering quotas for students from each Chinese province.

Gaokao_1_2013 Soldiers and paramilitary policemen transport students through a flooded prairie after heavy rainfall, to attend the National College Entrance Exam in Hulun Buir, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on June 6, 2013. Photo: Reuters

“With the way the system works in China, if we based university applications on a personal interview system, there would be so much corruption,” said the academic from a leading university who asked not to be named. “If people were able to show their resumes, with all their accomplishments, there would be so many forgeries! In the face of the Gaokao,” he said, “everyone is equal.”