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As students prepare for China’s college-entrance exam, a scandal brews

To reduce the risk of infections, the gaokao is taking place under tight restrictions


CHEN CHUNXIU was applying to join an adult-education programme when she discovered, to her surprise, that she already had a degree. The 36-year-old kindergarten teacher from Shandong province had left formal education in 2004 after taking the gaokao, China’s fearsome university-entrance exam. Though she had attained a respectable score, she had failed to secure a place. When, this year, she asked Shandong University of Technology to explain why its records listed her as an alumnus, the answer was a shock. The university concluded that another young woman with the same surname but much lower grades had connived with teachers and local officials to obtain the college-acceptance notice that should have been sent to Ms Chen. This woman had assumed Ms Chen’s identity and earned a degree, which she then used to bag a job as a civil servant.

Reporting of Ms Chen’s story has caused a furore ahead of this year’s gaokao, which will take place on July 7th and 8th (it was postponed by a month because of the pandemic). Several people from the same province have come forward with similar complaints. One newspaper reported that a review of student records in Shandong had found more than 240 cases of impersonation at 14 universities (officials say these all involved people who attended university some years ago, and that some of the students who were impersonated had knowingly sold their spots to others). In late June an editorial in China Daily, a state-run newspaper, warned that the frauds revealed in Shandong could be “only the tip of an iceberg” and that there may be many more cases elsewhere.

The 10m people who are sitting this year’s gaokao already had plenty to worry about. Few will get a second chance to win a place at one of China’s better universities, a prerequisite for many of its good jobs. Many of them spent as long as 12 weeks out of the classroom during the worst of the covid-19 outbreak in China. Though most have been back at their desks since late April, they have worried about schools being closed again because of localised outbreaks. Now organisers are trying to reassure test-takers that they will not be infected in the exam room. All invigilators will have to wear masks, as will pupils sitting the exam in parts of China that are still deemed medium- or high-risk. Each exam centre will have quarantine spaces for pupils who display symptoms of the coronavirus while the tests are under way.

Britain and many other countries cancelled their most important public exams this year, choosing instead to grade youngsters according to their achievements before the pandemic. Chinese officials concerned about children’s mental health have ordered schools not to run some of the less important end-of-year assessments. But even during the height of the outbreak there was little doubt that the gaokao would go ahead, as it has almost every year since the Communist Party seized power in 1949 (apart from 1966-76, during the Cultural Revolution). At most Chinese universities, gaokao scores are the only gauge of applicants’ ability. Despite the pressure the system puts on students, the gaokao enjoys strong public support because it is seen as meritocratic. In theory, even the poorest villager can transform their life by acing it.

But the exam is not only marred by dirty tricks such as the one that denied Ms Chen her place. The odds are also stacked against people in the countryside. Much less money is spent on rural schools than urban ones. Many of their pupils drop out long before they have a chance to take the gaokao. Even rural residents who do well in the exam are disadvantaged. China’s good universities are clustered in rich cities, and are allowed to offer a disproportionate number of places to pupils who live nearby.

Covid-19 may cause even greater unfairness. Remote learning in poor parts of China is likely to have been less successful than in the cities, in part because of limited access to computers. And because it is a pupil’s ranking relative to others—rather than their test score itself—that is used to decide university admissions, this year’s month-long postponement of the gaokao has been a mixed blessing. Some have benefited from the extra study-time. Others’ lives have been too disrupted by quarantine measures to put the extra weeks to good use.

The party recognises these inequities, and many others. It has long worried that the rote-learning required is not producing enough creative or entrepreneurial types. Though it talks endlessly about reform, it has not done much more than tinker. Parents do not like the anxiety the test causes their children. But they believe, with some justification, that more subjective forms of assessment would be prone to corruption. Even before the pandemic, unemployment was high among university graduates. The economic damage caused by covid-19 will make it all the more important to get a place at a good university in order to have a chance of getting a decent job. That will crank up pressure on pupils sitting the gaokao and make middle-class families even less inclined to consider changes to a system that they broadly believe works well, says Jiang Xueqin, an education consultant.

But it will increase pressure on the government to prevent the most blatant type of cheating. Last year it encouraged officials to do a better job of detecting people who use underhand ways to enable their children to sit the exam in places where quotas make the competition for good universities a bit less fierce. This year it tightened college-admission rules for foreign students. The aim was to prevent Chinese who had secured foreign passports for their children from using the easier routes to admission that had been available to foreigners wanting to study in China. In early July officials in Shandong province said they were taking action against more than 60 people implicated in three cases of identity theft, including the one reported by Ms Chen. The university she should have attended said it would try to help her enroll, 16 years after her opportunity to do so was stolen.

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Hong Kong Bans Protest Song and Other Political Expression at Schools

Hong Kong’s education secretary on Wednesday banned students from singing the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” posting slogans with political messages or forming human chains, saying “the schools are obliged to stop” such activities.

The statement by the secretary, Kevin Yeung, ratcheted up the pressure on the pro-democracy movement as Hong Kong residents struggle to determine what is acceptable behavior under a strict new national security law that China imposed on the semiautonomous territory last week.

Students, including middle schoolers, have been a driving force in Hong Kong’s protest movement. Beijing’s imposition of the national security law last Wednesday — and the subsequent arrests of teenagers at protests — has led some families to express concerns that their children could be in jeopardy for singing pro-democracy songs or even for expressing such sentiments in their homes.

Mr. Yeung issued the new guidelines in a statement responding to a question from a Hong Kong legislator, Ip Kin-yuen.

The education secretary said that students had been “misled and incited to express their political stance in different ways (such as boycotting classes, chanting slogans, forming human chains, and posting slogans or singing songs which contain political messages in schools.)”

Hong Kong’s education system has emerged as a particular target of the Chinese government and pro-Beijing forces in the city. China sees Hong Kong’s failure to impose a patriotic education curriculum in the schools as helping to turn them into breeding grounds for the radicalization of students. Hong Kong’s university campuses were the site of some of the most intense confrontations between the police and protesters last year.

In his statement, Mr. Yeung said that the unofficial anthem of the protest movement, “Glory to Hong Kong,” should not be played, broadcast or sung in schools. The song, written and composed anonymously and then modified in online forums popular with protesters, became a rallying cry at demonstrations during the yearlong protests that engulfed the city.

The song, Mr. Yeung said, “contains strong political messages and is closely related to the social and political incidents, violence and illegal incidents that have lasted for months.”

“Therefore, schools must not allow students to play, sing or broadcast it in schools,” he added.

The new national security law prohibits any activities found to be secessionist, subversive or terrorist in nature.

The Hong Kong government last week outlawed the main pro-democracy slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong — revolution of our times!” which pro-Beijing elements in the city view as a call for independence from China. But independence was not one of the five demands of the pro-democracy movement.

The banning of “Glory to Hong Kong” at schools drew criticism as being “draconian.”

In calling for the curtailment of political behavior at schools, the education secretary said that at least 1,600 students under the age of 18 had been arrested in the protests.

“Schools are places for students to learn and grow,” he said. “They should not be used as a venue for anyone to express their political demands.”

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China’s Leash on Hong Kong Tightens, Choking a Broadcaster

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s public broadcaster has long been a rare example of a government-funded news organization operating on Chinese soil that fearlessly attempts to hold officials accountable.

The broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, dug into security footage last year to show how the police failed to respond when a mob attacked protesters in a train station, leading to widespread criticism of the authorities. The broadcaster also produced a three-part documentary on China’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. One RTHK journalist, Nabela Qoser, became famous in Hong Kong for her persistent questioning of top officials.

Now, RTHK’s journalists and hard-hitting investigations appear vulnerable to China’s new national security law, which takes aim at dissent and could rein in the city’s largely freewheeling news organizations. The broadcaster, modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation, has already been feeling pressure.

RTHK has drawn fire in recent months from the police, establishment lawmakers and pro-Beijing activists. Its critics have filed thousands of complaints accusing the broadcaster of bias against the government and regularly protest outside its studios.

“If you want to enjoy freedom, you have obligations to follow,” said Innes Tang, the chairman of Politihk Social Strategic, a nonprofit pro-Beijing group that has organized protests and petitions against RTHK. “You cannot use fake news to attack people. That is not part of freedom of expression.”

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

As the objections mounted, RTHK was forced to suspend a satirical program that made fun of the police. It was criticized by the Hong Kong government for asking the World Health Organization if Taiwan could join the global health body from which Beijing has shut it out. The broadcaster faces a formal government review into its operations starting next week.

The sweeping national security law China imposed last week on Hong Kong is directed at quelling the pro-democracy protest movement that roiled the territory last year, but it also calls for tougher regulation of the media. The worry is that the law would be used to muzzle outlets by requiring publishers and broadcasters to avoid content and discussions that could be seen by the authorities as subversive. The worst-case fear is that RTHK, as a government department, could be forced to become an organ of state propaganda.

The city’s news outlets have faced an onslaught. Reporters covering protests have been pepper-sprayed and detained by the police. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, was one of several opposition figures arrested early this year, and state media have accused him of fomenting unrest.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers have urged the government to register journalists. The new security law also calls for a group of government bodies, including the national security office, to oversee foreign journalists, raising concerns about the erosion of press freedoms.

A reporter asked Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, at a briefing on Tuesday if she would guarantee that journalists in the city would be free to report with the new law in place. Mrs. Lam responded that if “all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 percent guarantee that they will not commit any offenses under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same.”

Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer of journalism at City, University of London who worked for RTHK in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said the broadcaster was in an “extremely perilous situation” because its status as a government department made it easier for Beijing to exert control.

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The news organization appears to be taking pre-emptive steps to avoid falling afoul of the security law. In recent weeks, several RTHK journalists say, editors have told reporters not to emphasize pro-independence slogans in their news reports.

An RTHK spokeswoman, Amen Ng, said that RTHK journalists “have been doing their job professionally” but added that the broadcaster was not a “platform to promote Hong Kong independence.”

But there were already signs in RTHK’s newsroom that a chill was setting in.

Kirindi Chan, a top RTHK executive, announced unexpectedly in June that she would resign, citing health reasons. Days later, she met with RTHK reporters who pressed her if she was being forced out over their coverage of the antigovernment demonstrations. Ms. Chan denied being ousted, but she sought to deliver some solemn advice.

Ms. Chan reminded the reporters and producers of their role as civil servants, and urged them to comply with the government’s code of conduct, according to two people who attended the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter.

She did not go into details, but the civil service code calls for impartiality and loyalty to the government, values the authorities have stressed to discourage government employees from joining the protests.

Over an RTHK career of nearly three decades, Ms. Chan earned the respect of her staff for being a staunch defender of the organization’s editorial independence. At the end of the somber half-hour meeting, the reporters gave Ms. Chan a bouquet of red and yellow tulips, but an employees’ union said her departure was an ominous sign.

“We worry that Ms. Chan’s resignation would set the scene for further attacks on RTHK,” the union said in a statement.

RTHK has also found itself caught in geopolitical wrangling between China and Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory.

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

In April, the government criticized RTHK over an interview the broadcaster ran with a World Health Organization official, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who was asked whether Taiwan should be allowed to participate in the health body. Taiwan had been shut out by Beijing in recent years.

In an awkward exchange that highlighted the sensitivity of the topic, Dr. Aylward first said he did not hear the question, then asked to move on. When the reporter repeated it, the line went dead; minutes later, asked again, Dr. Aylward replied, “We’ve already talked about China.” The interaction gave further ammunition to critics who say the health body is unduly beholden to Beijing.

Edward Yau, the Hong Kong secretary for commerce and economic development, which supervises RTHK, accused the broadcaster of having breached China’s official stance toward Taiwan. Such a rebuke now carries more significance against the backdrop of the security law, which focuses heavily on perceived threats to China’s sovereignty.

If RTHK were forced to adopt a new role as a broadcaster that serves as the voice of the government, it would be the culmination of a decades-long campaign by its pro-Beijing critics.

RTHK was founded as a government radio station in 1928, when Hong Kong was a British colony, and broadcast official bulletins for half a century before it set up its own newsroom in 1973. Not long after the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997, pro-Beijing politicians started urging RTHK to fall in line with the central government.

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Editorial independence is enshrined in RTHK’s charter. But unlike the United States or Britain, where public broadcasting is given greater autonomy from the government through nonprofit corporations, RTHK is a government department, which makes it far more vulnerable to official intervention.

The government flexed its grip over RTHK most overtly in May when it complained about “Headliner,” a satirical program that had taken pointed jabs at the police. That prompted the broadcaster to apologize and suspend the show, a decision that caused some alarm within the organization.

“If those who are in power cannot tolerate ‘Headliner,’ then their intolerance will extend to other current affairs programs,” said Gladys Chiu, the chairwoman of RTHK’s labor union.

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Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

On a recent Wednesday, the staff of “Headliner” gathered in RTHK’s aging studio for a final shoot. Ng Chi-sum, a longtime host of the show, portrayed Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, as Cixi, the out-of-touch empress dowager during the final decline of the Qing dynasty, donning a gaudy headdress, a fake pearl necklace and a gown.

The hosts kept up a light banter between takes, but off camera, Mr. Ng, 61, spoke gloomily of the show’s prospects, and those of the city itself.

“The worst is yet to come,” Mr. Ng said. “The overall trend nowadays is an exhaustive takeover of Hong Kong.”

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White House Warns Against Chinese Investment, Citing Risk of Further Sanctions

WASHINGTON — White House officials on Tuesday warned a federally administered retirement plan for railroad workers against investing in Chinese companies and said that additional sanctions could be on the way in return for China’s role in spreading the coronavirus.

The national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and the director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, told the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board in a letter that its investments in China were exposing retirees to “unnecessary economic risk” and channeling funds into companies “that raise significant national security and humanitarian concerns,” including some that supply the Chinese Army.

The White House officials said it was “a time of mounting uncertainty” over China’s relations with the rest of the world that presented “the possibility of future sanctions or boycotts that may arise from a wide range of issues, including the culpable actions of the Chinese government with respect to the global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy,” and other factors.

The warning comes amid worsening ties between the world’s two largest economies, which have frayed as the administration continues to blame China for not doing enough to contain the virus. But even before the pandemic, the Trump administration was considering taking a tougher stance on the investments that have knit together American and Chinese financial markets.

Politicians of both parties have questioned whether federal retirement funds should be funneling money to Chinese companies that have links to the Chinese government and military.

The Railroad Retirement Board managed $28.3 billion in assets as of late 2018 and paid out benefits to around half a million recipients last year. The board says it invests its retirement assets in a diversified portfolio similar to those of private sector retirement plans, many of which include exposure to China.

In May, a major government retirement fund halted plans to invest in Chinese stocks this year, after growing criticism from the Trump administration and lawmakers.

China critics have also criticized that country’s decision to block Chinese companies from sharing certain financial information with United States regulators, which has left Chinese companies in violation of American disclosure requirements.

Lawmakers and some in the administration have called for delisting Chinese firms until they comply with American rules, throwing into question the future of about $1 trillion of Chinese investment in American stock markets.

The White House set up a working group in early June to study the issue, which is expected to deliver recommendations to the president by early August.

Peter Navarro, the assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said the letter was “part of a broader effort to defend American pensioners from imprudent risks while defending human rights internationally.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    Updated July 7, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.