Weeks before China’s 13 million high school graduates received the results of their college entrance exam or “gaokao”, tens of thousands rushed to register at a newly established online fictional university named Shanhe University (山河大學).
The virtual Shanhe University was first established by a netizen, Huange (欢哥), near the end of June 2023, when final-year high school students were busy filling out university applications. Soon after, the imaginary university went viral as people rushed to join him in the fantasy of an ideal university by sharing admission principles, university motto, campus photos, course outlines, etc.
The students’ utopian dream has exposed the dim reality of China's education system and the systemic discrimination against students from poor provinces. Hence, as Shanhe University went viral on social media, an education bureau official was compelled to comment on the phenomena on July 6, promising to allocate educational resources better. At the same time, major online platforms began censoring the topic by hiding related hashtags and content.
A collaborative virtual utopia
According to Twitter whistleblower Li Laoshi’s video explainer on Youtube, Huange launched the website on WeChat with an admission certificate issued by Shanhe University near the end of June and told other netizens to generate their certificate via the website too. It is obvious that his post is satirical as the president of the University is Du Fu (712–770), a Chinese poet and politician during the ancient Tang Dynasty. His post went viral within hours.
On June 30, he published another post with details about Shanhe University. He imagined the university would be privately funded by students from the four provinces — Shanxi, Shandong, Henan and Hebei, where government education resources are limited. Hence, he proposed:
If the 3.43 million gaokao students from Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei and Henan each contributed RMB 1000 yuan [USD 139], we would have more than 3 billion to build a university and make it a top school better than Qinghai and Beida.
The inequality in the Chinese education system is reflected in the geographical stratification of funding and resources. Thanks to a university quota system that favours the admission of students with local hukou, an official household registration that marks a person's place of origin, gaokao students from big cities enjoy a much higher admission rate to top schools often located in first-tier cities than those from poor rural provinces. The four provinces together have 300 million population but only have seven among about 150 top-ranking universities in the country, whereas a single Jiangsu province has 11 top schools. In 2022, the top school admission rate in Beijing was 46.02 percent, while in Henan was just 11.93 percent.
Hence, every year, to snag a spot at a top university in a big city, more than 3 million gaokao students from the four rural provinces have to viciously compete through more difficult examination procedures and obtain a much higher score than their urban counterparts.
The difficulty of gaokao papers varies from the easiest level 1 to the most difficult level 6 according to factors such as the university to students ratio. Big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin take the level 1 examination, while Shandong and Shanxi take level 5, and Henan and Hebei take level 6.
Huange’s suggestion thus attracted many comments slamming the unfair education system. Some joined Huange in building the fictional university with images and memes.
On the right is a viral image of Shanhe University's admission guidelines which mocked the unfair education system:
In brief: This is a high-quality university founded by Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Shanxi provinces to free students from the four provinces from the unjust system so that they enjoy the right to go to school.
Admission: Gaokau students from Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Shanxi can apply directly, while those outside the four are eligible with a 700 score from Gaokao. [A perfect score is about 750] .
Soon after Huange's website was launched, Twitter user @tom174254 created an account, “Shanhe University foreign admission office“, to collect online memes about Shanhe University. Here is an image of the “front gate” of the University:
— 山河大学海外招生办 (@tom174254) June 28, 2023
This is the student ID card:
— 山河大学海外招生办 (@tom174254) June 30, 2023
Some pasted the emblem of the university onto a real key holder:
— 山河大学海外招生办 (@tom174254) July 3, 2023
Censorship: dreaming is not allowed
After the memes went viral and attracted more serious commentary about rural-urban inequality, the deputy head of the Ministry of Education had to address the concern and promise a better reallocation of educational resources on July 6:
The Ministry of Education will continue improving the allocation of education resources and support central-western regions, in particular supporting provinces with large populations to expand their educational resources and improve the tertiary education system and regional divide.
Yet, the four provinces are located in the central-eastern regions; many netizens pointed out with bitterness.
China's youth unemployment rate has kept climbing to a record 20 percent despite the end of the zero-COVID policy. Students from non-elite universities face more pressure than graduates from top ones, and hence gaokao students are more anxious and scornful than ever. However, it is unlikely that the Chinese government will expand the college sector further as the unemployment problem is generated by a mismatch between the job market and the educated youth's career aspirations caused by decades-long college bubbles.
In reaction to the bitterness stemming from the structural crisis, the Chinese censor machine geared up to repress the spread of the memes. All hashtags related to Shanhe University have vanished from major social media platforms. China Digital Times has collected some comments on the authorities’ response to people's dreams:
Hashtags were all gone. Students from the four provinces can't even have dreams.
The experts would say the country needs more people in the agricultural and mining sector.
Fewer newborns will help.
As a result of censorship, both the Chinese and English names of “Shanhe University” have been removed from its website as of July 12.