Today's Paper

Shanghai on hold

Ananth Krishnan

Largest state-organised examinations put city in silent mode

SHANGHAI: For the past three days, many of the bustling neighbourhoods in this, China’s most populous, city have been eerily quiet. No sounds of the usually incessant car-horns, and even more surprisingly, none of the ceaseless drilling and hammering from construction work that provides the soundtrack to most Shanghainese’s days and nights.

For a noisy city, gripped in recent weeks by frequent observances of mourning for the earthquake, sounds of silence are becoming strangely common. But there was a very pragmatic reason behind Shanghai’s latest round of silence.

More than 100,000 high school students in the city were this past weekend sitting at what is the world’s largest state-organised examinations.

Government’s warning

The national college entrance examinations, which more than 10 million graduating seniors across China will take this year, entirely determines university placement for students. With the competition for places at the country’s best universities increasing by the year, the examinations have become serious business. The government even warned this year that people who leaked the contents of examination papers would be charged with divulging “state secrets.”

And the pressure to perform is not just on the students: in recent years, over-anxious parents have begun to have run-ins with the traffic police during the exam weekend, objecting to the noise from traffic on roads next to testing centres. Last year, a dozen parents formed a human-chain to completely block traffic from entering a street where their children were testing away.

Traffic measures

This year, local authorities in Shanghai came out with a host of traffic measures to minimise disruptions to test-takers, and in neighbourhoods around testing centres, life came to a standstill. The government banned all construction work within 100 metres of all test-sites for three days. Outside the Guangming middle school near Shanghai’s People’s Square, the traffic police were handing out cards to two-wheelers and cars to tell them to not use their horns — and those that did faced heavy fines.

The large group of parents waiting anxiously outside the middle school said they were pleased with the arrangements — though there was nothing they could do about the loud thunderstorm that decided to make an appearance halfway through the test on Sunday.

‘Biggest step’

One of them was Lu Yan, whose son Yuzhou aspires to become a designer. “As a parent, you face a lot of anxiety,” Mr. Lu said. “Under the current system, these examinations are the biggest step for a student to enter society, and to find a job. The rest of your education and employment completely depends on it.”

In Shanghai, the examinations made themselves felt in rather unusual ways, changing daily patterns of life in settings as diverse as Buddhist temples and luxury hotels. Many city hotels recorded full bookings last weekend — even for their luxury suites — thanks to parents who wanted to give their little emperors the best possible study environment and minimise the commute to test-centres.

The 1800-year-old Buddhist Jingan temple in Shanghai was, rather unusually, packed on most mornings last week, and visitors were not just the usual crowd of tourists. “But don’t think we always get so many worshippers,” a priest said wryly. “It’s just the exams.”