Chinese students review textbooks or write test papers to prepare for the upcoming National College Entrance Exam, also known as gaokao, at the Shanxi Library in Taiyuan city, north China's Shanxi province, 2 June 2016.

Some nine million students are preparing for the biggest test of their life: China's annual college entrance examination. Called the gaokao, or "high exam," it will take place over nine hours on June 7-8 across China. It's the culmination of years of memorization and test taking, capped off by at least 12 months of grueling preparation. With its roots in the imperial examinations that started more than 2,000 years ago, the gaokao decides what school you go to and what career you might have, says Xiong Bingqi, vice president at the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Shanghai. The gaokao is an especially high hurdle for China's more than 100 million rural students, who already receive an education of far lower quality than their urban counterparts. A quota system for allocating coveted college slots by province, which greatly favors local students, also works against rural youth who often live far from the better universities and need higher test scores than local applicants to gain admission. That means urban youth are 7 times as likely to get into a college as poor rural youth and 11 times as likely to get into an elite institution, according to economist Scott Rozelle, a Chinese education researcher at Stanford. "The current system itself is unfair," Xiong says. "Inequality is inevitable."
What happens if you fail the gaokao? (2016)
04:27 - Source: CNN
Beijing CNN  — 

Wang Huairong, a 17-year-old Chinese high school senior, is wandering the streets when he should be preparing for the most important exam of his life.

His parents moved more than 800 miles from their home in Shandong province to Fujian, in the south, in July 2017 to give him a better chance of scoring highly in the country’s university entrance exam – the gaokao.

They made the move after Fujian, a province with a smaller population that’s perceived as an easier place to take the test, allowed non-residents to sit the exam there.

But a new provincial government decree in November disqualified Wang and hundreds of other students who had settled in the province after July 1, 2017 and they now can’t take the test. Many parents of the rejected students think it is policy backtracking and have brought their grievances to the capital Beijing.

“My dad often says that we should trust the government. But right now I’m disappointed with the society and the nation. I have no idea about my future path,” Wang said Tuesday. He’s in Beijing with his parents to petition the government to allow him to take the gaokao but on Wednesday, the day before the exam, they still hadn’t heard anything.

“I feel like my entire life is now drowned in soup,” Wang said. “I wanted to study politics and law.”

Parents and students gather at the country's Ministry of Education, demanding for permits to take the exam.

On the eve of the national exam, which is sat over three days starting Thursday, many of the parents say they can’t help but blame themselves.

“I wanted to make the smartest choice every step of the way,” 46-year-old construction worker Huang Liexian said with remorse. “But in the end, my daughter doesn’t even have a future now.”

Many of the parents have lined up outside the Ministry of Education in Beijing most mornings since April 9, bringing foldable stools to sit on and umbrellas to shield them from the burning sun.

The Ministry of Education didn’t respond to a request for comment. Repeated calls by CNN to the Fujian Examinations Authority also went unanswered.

Parents and students endure the hot weather as they wait outside the Ministry of Education in Beijing.

Fujian dream

Although it takes place at the same time nationwide, the test is administered at a provincial level, meaning state demographics can greatly affect how well each province’s students perform.

A student’s result in the gaokao is heavily weighted by their provinces’ population, economic factors and how successful its entrants have been in the past.

When Fujian, a province well known for its small student population and high enrollment quota, made a rare move to open up its gaokao to students nationwide, many families decided to seize the opportunity.

Aerial view of senior students of Hanjiang High School of Jiangsu Province posing as Chinese characters "2018 Gaokao Come On" during stress relief event ahead of the annual national college entrance examination.

However, these so-called gaokao migrants sometimes caused resentment among locals.

Wang said at first he didn’t want to move to somewhere 1,600 kilometers away from home, but lured by a “Fujian dream” – better chances to get into college and cleaner air – the family managed to buy a property in Fujian and finally moved there last July.

“The exam has been my only motivation for the past decade,” Wang said

By November 2017, 15,699 out-of-province students registered in Fujian for the 2018 gaokao, according to the local authority. Some 605 students were affected by the rule change and can’t take the exam, a government statement said.

Zhao Lezhi, who has waited outside the Ministry of Education each day, said that gaokao immigrants are mostly lower-middle class people who want to give their kids a good start in life.

“We are not even asking for social security, but only the right to determine my daughter’s future,” Zhao said.