Gaokao (China’s College Admissions Test) Shows the Limits of Meritocracy

Despite having the world's second-largest economy, does China's reliance on meritocratic evaluation prevent its capacity for innovation?

Published: Jul 22, 2023  |  


As a recent high school graduate, and the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up hearing stories about my parents’ lives in China and their observations of the Chinese system of education when compared to the one I grew up with. 

Pure meritocratic advancement in China was started by the Song Dynasty, but during China’s transition to a market economy, the Chinese Communist Party wanted to associate itself even more with meritocracy and party leaders leaned into higher education selection to prove the country’s commitment to rewarding deserving workers. But the country’s best shot at a pure meritocracy—the “Gaokao” or the National Higher Education Entrance Examination—actually proves the need for diversity. 

The Gaokao is an annual standardized test administered to students in their final year of high school and is considered one of the most important exams in the country. It’s supposed to equalize test takers of different socioeconomic groups; whether it succeeds in doing that is debatable.

The Gaokao covers various subjects, including Chinese language and literature, mathematics, foreign languages, and sciences. The exam is typically held over a two-day period and is known for its high stakes and competitiveness. Students spend years preparing for the Gaokao, as it has a significant impact on their future educational and career opportunities. 

The results of the exam are the sole admissions factor. It goes further than admissions, too; it determines not only which universities students can attend, but also what majors they can pursue. That means this test gatekeeps careers; job outcomes are based on the student’s scores on this test.

An ultimate meritocracy—indeed, this type of system—seems exactly like what the petitioners in the Students for Fair Admissions case envision for college admissions, where only performance on certain metrics matters. 

Admittedly, it appears to serve China well. Approximately 91.5 percent of graduates are employed; that makes sense considering that the literacy rate in China hovers around 100 percent (it’s 99.83 percent, to be exact). In the United States, it’s about 86% of graduates who find jobs, and the country’s literacy rate is 79%

But while the Gaokao might keep the majority of people in China at a higher educational level than the majority of those in the United States, it will not bring about the creativity and innovation that China wants—and needs—to be competitive at the highest percentiles. 

In China, as an example, 696,000 patents were approved of 1.586 million applications, a little over one-third. While some hypothesize that patent approval is politically driven in China—and it may be—it also seems to be the case that the ideas being filed aren’t actually that novel, the paramount characteristic of a successful patent application. 

Looking at the number of new patents every year in the United States, finds a different dynamic. In the 2022 fiscal year, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) approved 382,559 of 646,855 new patent applications, about 59%. While it’s possible that the United States approval process is less political, it also appears that applications are more novel, and more indicative of innovation. 

It could be argued, that Chinese college graduates almost fear innovation. Historically, about 3 percent of college graduates in China seek to open new businesses after they finish school. It’s completely understandable; entrepreneurship requires boldness, veering off path, and strategies totally unfamiliar to those who trained for the purely meritocratic Gaokao. 

China understands this and last year offered tax incentives and loans to college graduates who started businesses in rural areas. 

Creativity and divergent thinking matter—they produce unprecedented results, and they’re amplified by diversity. There’s proof of this, too. According to one study, racial diversity improves bottom lines. Another found that gender diversity in corporate leadership does the same. 

To be clear, the Gaokao was designed to level people’s chances at admission. Making only one qualification matter was a way to remove socioeconomic advantage. But even that backfired. Wealthier families can afford preparation and coaching for the Gaokao that many others can’t. It still hasn’t created an entirely merit-based process.

With the end of affirmative action, college admissions committees must develop tools that actively promote and encourage diversity and seek to redefine and broaden what “excellence” looks like. Diversity and superior ability cannot come about with as simplistic a tool as identifying people who excel at testing. Elite college campuses must continue to welcome those who demonstrate that they are exceptional, but who are also meaningfully different and can contribute different ideas and perspectives.

The petitioners in Students for Fair Admissions are correct that diversity is not just a mix of race, gender or socio-economic background. Rather, it’s a stew of experience and insight. It’s the things our parents repeat to us, the things we are good at, the values our community of peers and parental figures raised us with, and how we are treated. Race, gender, and class have until now been the easiest proxies to bring about that blend. 

Students for Fair Admissions is wrong that pure meritocratic measures can bring about true diversity. China’s Gaokao proves the opposite is true.