Affirmative Action Myths: Is There Absolute Fairness?

Chinese Gaokao Admission Policy: A Transnational Parallel

In order to understand this obsession with elite education within Asian/American, Asian communities, one must first acknowledge the historical tradition for Asians to combine education with prospects. Here I utilized China as an example.

Gaokao also can be termed as the National Higher Education Exam (NHEE), is the most momentous annual occasion in China. Every summer, hundreds of millions of students participated in Gaokao nationwide. This exam thus became the ultimate factor in determining one’s bright or gloomy future.

The history of gaokao can be traced back to 600 AD in the Tang Dynasty. The ancient administration employed this national exam system as the admission of institutions or government. After the Opium War, the Chinese national exam system experienced fundamental reforms over years. The goal of the exam transformed from recruiting employees for the government into cultivating the revolutionaries who can lift the country out of colonialism and imperialism. On June 12th, 1952, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) legislated the “Rules of National Higher Education Universities Summer Admission in 1952”, which is known as the prototype of gaokao system today. During Cultural Revolution, the gaokao system was abolished, and restored in 1977. Noticeably, only 59 thousand students participated in the exam in 1952, but this year, the number of participators expanded to 9.75 million. The gaokao system has enlarged in number from small groups to great packs.

Speaking of the admission of gaokao, one must not ignore the Project 211 and 985. In 1996, the government implemented the project 211 “in its effort to facilitate the development of higher education in the context of the country’s advancement in social and economic fields”(China Education Center). On May 4, 1998, Jiang Zemin undertook the project 985, which aims at cultivating some first-rate universities of international advanced level. We can see some compatibility that the reform of the gaokao system is in accordance with China’s economic reform. With cultivating first-rate, higher-educated students, China is preparing itself for incorporating into the global economy.

Such changes simultaneously imposed inequality upon students from different areas. First of all, which universities are qualified in Project 211 or 985 is determined by the government. Since those universities were included in the national education projects, the government thus contribute financial allocation to them every year, which further perpetuates the inequality of different universities. Also, most nominated 985 or 211 universities are located in metropolitan cities — such as Beijing and Shanghai, and the uplifting of universities thus spurred the economic rise of the entire cities.

The education projects must be discussed along with the “district protectionism”. To ensure the local students’ privilege, every province usually gives admissions firstly to students from the local area. Although every province shares this district protectionism, the university distribution is rather unequal. Therefore, students in Beijing or Shanghai usually have a better chance of entering into the first-rate universities, while students from Tibet, Xinjiang, or other western areas often hold a limited chance of admissions.

The unequal university admission also exists in China, but the dominant factor of this inequality is wealth and social class. As a nation with the prominent racial majority, race only plays a small part in influencing the admission process. The government legalized a rule for providing racial minority students extra scores in the exam, but the bonus fell from 10 to 5 due to the criticism of the racial majority group.

Implementation of Project 211 and 985 not only widened the education standard gap geologically but also constructed a hierarchical education system nationwide. Since education is closely bound to one’s future, the inequality in the education system further extended to every aspect of society. Therefore, we can easily comprehend the desperation for Chinese students striving for better universities when it comes to studying abroad.

Fairness: “How are you not supposed to be proud of who we are?”

Through the analysis of the gaokao system in China, it is obvious that the admission inequality exists in other than American’s social and political context. It is different in formats but the same in essence. News reports have unveiled the trend of a highly racialized admission process lurking in the Ivy League. Either prefer or anti-racial minority applicants, those universities have always select students with racial considerations.

Interestingly, the problem in the U.S. is sometimes rather the reverse. Due to over political correctness, most elite universities actually creates a “lopsided emphasis on minority concerns, at the cost of democratic principles of fairness and equity”(Takagi,3). From the 1970s to mid-1980s, elite universities such as Harvard and Stanford adopted the affirmative actions, which address preferences to Asian students over Caucasian applicants.

However, statistics have shown that such political correctness considerations have declined since 1985. In 1987, 19% of Caucasian applicants were accepted for admissions while the proportion of Asian applicants only took part for 14% (Tsuang,661).

According to a report from the New York Times in 2012, Michael Wang, an Asian American student who seem to qualified for any elite universities admission standard, was refused by all the universities he applied for. Yet such occasion is far from special. Tsuang gave the detailed comparative data for Asian and Caucasian applicants, and they all testify to the conception of a biased admission.

When asked for the reasons, admission offices usually gave out ambiguous, generalized explanations, such as Asian students are indeed intelligent but also lack of extracurricular activities. Some universities complain that Asian students would all apply for the same major, which leaves the admission office limited amount to include them. However, Tsuang’s report invalidates all of these excuses. In the case of Stanford admission in 1989, all students were assigned with a “non-academic rating”. He noted that Asians were still admitted at a lower rate even when they received the same non-academic rating with the Caucasians(Tsuang,659). As for the competitiveness in intended majors, a 7-year-long survey conducted in Berkeley engineering departments strongly proved that Caucasian admit rates still exceeded Asian admit rates even in the same major(Tsuang,663).

Those universities’ admission gave such ambiguous explanations that can be easily disproved, which means they never conducted any research or statistics on this issue. How they come to this conclusion, was actually based on their preconception towards Asian students. To be exact, it was their stereotypical perception that Asian students are all introverted bookworms that constructed their selective process.

The race itself is such a ubiquitous and sensitive topic in American social life, that the admission of universities is also wrapped in it. From the universities’ depiction of the Asian students, we can understand how the stereotype of racial minority students became established. Although the universities always rendered itself as the “melting pot” that welcomes all different races and ethics, this essay argues the opposite. As a multiracial country as it is, the Ivy universities actually set a clear dividing line for the racial minority groups and assigned different expectations for students who belong in each category. Compared with Asian students, the selection standards for African American or Hispanic students are usually much easier to meet. This actually enhanced an unequal admission among different races. Moreover, students from different racial communities are often required to compete with other students of their own race. The racialized categories of admission is an embodiment of the racially distinguished America. Despite the fact that most universities now owns a colorful group of students, those students are never truly assimilated. Each racial groups are distinctly divided and self-depended, and the stereotype that enforced on them make them more likely to seek assimilation within their own racial groups. The stereotypical perspectives, therefore, end up separating the Asian students from other racial minority students and keeping them to themselves. The ostensible colorful universities are diversified and divided.

The universities shifted the blame to the unequal education backgrounds of different racial groups in society. It is necessary that some other racial minority groups are granted privilege while Asian students are not, because those who from less-educated racial background students need a better chance for education. Given that most Asian immigrants in the 1980s were well-educated intellectuals, their Asian descendants certainly enjoys a better education household facility. To establish a universal benchmark that applies to all various racial groups fails to consider the racial imbalance in the first place.

For now, we must ask: what is fairness? Since absolute fairness neglect the fact of social inequality, it seems that this racial stereotype for admission supposes to maintain as a counterbalance to the unfairness in society. In short, the unfair national immigration policy leads to the unfair admission policy.

I contend the racialized admission is just a small reflection of the racialized nation. In order to abolish the stereotypes for Asian minorities, the US must first abolish its selective attitudes in emigration admission.


Written by Haowen Cui