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The Damaged Generation

15 year-old Sun Jia Lu wakes up each morning at six, eats breakfast on the bus to school, sits through eight classes, and then returns home where she studies until one in the morning the following day. She wakes up five hours later and repeats. Weekends aren't for resting. They're for tutoring sessions. She's done this for nine years. "All of this for the gao kao," she tells me outside her high school in a Beijing suburb.

The gao kao, China's college entrance examination that will be administered over three days this week, is the ultimate tool of social advancement in China. It's the reason why Chinese high schools are glorified test prep institutions. Sun Jia Lu says it's also behind the nickname teenagers in today's China have given themselves: The Damaged Generation (被摧残的一代).

Sun's still got two years before she takes the gao kao. But for many recent high school graduates in China, this week is the most stressful one of their lives.

It's a time when parents fork out a healthy portion of their monthly salaries to pay for taxis to the test site so their teenager doesn't have to deal with public transportation; a hotel room near the test center where their teenager can rest between exam sections; a time when mothers buy their daughters birth control pills so that they don't get their period during the exam. Sometimes the pressure is just too much: Last year, at least three young test-takers killed themselves on the first day of the gao kao.

Sun fits the profile of a student who will probably do well on the gao kao: She attends an elite school in Beijing and is among the top 20 students in her class. I ask Sun if she's happy. She looks at me as if I'd grown a second head. "Of course I'm not happy! I have no freedom. Once I make it to University, then I can have a rest."

And therein lies the problem: After 13 years of non-stop test preparation, many Chinese see college as a big, feather mattress bed where their exhausted minds and bodies can collapse, relax, and catch up on a childhood spent studying. College, a place where young people are supposed to pursue their own interests and expand their minds, is, for many Chinese, a place where they can finally get some sleep.

This doesn't bode well for China's plan to develop an economy based on innovation. Innovation requires sharp, analytical minds; Minds that can synthesize data and solve complex problems. "Chinese teachers just teach us the answers," says Sun, "We spend years studying the correct answers for the next test we'll take."

As a result, China's young people are good at tests. Shanghai students proved this when they beat out students from all over the world last year in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the U.S. needed to see these results as "a wake-up call."

Perhaps. But before the U.S. starts modeling its system after the test-obsessive Chinese one, it might help to check-in with students like Sun Jia Lu; students who, after surviving China's education system, consider themselves damaged.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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Just because you are good at taking tests does not mean you will do well in life.

I just did a very rough calculation, comparing US and Chinese suicide rates.

If Chinese young people killed themselves at the same rate as Americans, then 5 sixteen-year-olds would kill themselves every day of the year. And, if anything, that's likely to be an underestimate.

Therefore if ‘three young test-takers killed themselves on the first day of the gao kao’ then that’s very sad, but not at all surprising. Unfortunately young people do kill themselves sometimes.

I have no doubt that the gao kao is extremely gruelling and stressful, and I wish the system would change. But, overall, my experience of meeting teenagers in China (and I’ve met hundreds of them) is that they are generally very much happier than Western ones.

If Chinese children are ‘damaged’, what does that make Western children? I seem to remember something about removing the beam from your own eye before removing the mote from others.

Love it or hate it, the educational system in China has surpassed our own. These children have consistently tested higher in math and science for countless years. I would hardly say that their focus on testing is creating an economy without innovation. Isn't China one of the leading technology producers in the world? No one is saying that their communist system is anything we want to model our own economy after. However, they are in the position to take over America, as things are today. Perhaps, had America invested in education just one of the hundreds of times they said they would, we might be in a better position to compete with China. As it is, we are hanging onto our "super power" status by a tiny thread, and China has the scissors.

Just because China *manufactures* the world's tech products doesn't make them innovators. Most of the innovation is still coming from outside of China. China is simply the manufacturing centre for these goods (this also applies to low tech goods).

This isn't to say that China won't surpass us economically (they will), but for them to stay in the top spot will require more creativity, more innovation, and more Chinese brands created from the ground up in China (as opposed to acquired from overseas). Without these, their growth will be severly limited.

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