Limo to your Leaving Cert? How China's exams exact a hefty price

There's money to be made from the millions sitting the Gaokao each year...

If you're a teen currently in the throes of the Leaving Cert or an adult still working through the Maths Paper I nightmares years later, you can always comfort yourself with the line: at least it's not Gaokao.

As 120,000 Irish students sat down to their first papers on Wednesday morning, some nine million Chinese students were trying to psych themselves up for a final exam that has become infamous around the world for its punishing nature. 

A single nine-hour test spread across two June days, everything hinges on Gaokao in a fiercely competitive economy which isn't too concerned about people getting left behind.

A poor score almost undoubtedly means you'll miss out on entrance to China's 2,200 universities and while there's a strong argument to be made that we place far too much emphasis on the Leaving Cert, it pales in comparison to the Gaokao frenzy that grips the villages, towns and cities spanning the Asian superpower.

Picture by: Mu Yu/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Rather than pitching up in your local school hall, the sheer size of the country means that most kids have to travel to larger exam centres – with the entire neighbourhood turning up to see the buses off and offer "encouragement". 

The gravity of what's at stake isn't lost on anyone in the community. In the run-up, police enforce "no honking" traffic rules and you can expect a knock on your door if the TV volume's turned up too loud.

There are also less benign and compassionate forces at work. Financial opportunities abound. And, again, if you're concerned about the rise of grind schools and increasing commercialisation of our own exams, this is a whole different kettle of fish.

For all the praise heaped on China when it comes to the strides they've made in commerce and industry, the reality is that this rising tide isn't lifting all boats.

Three decades of booming business and double digit growth has only served to dramatically widen the income gap.

In a fresh study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, French economist Thomas Piketty writes:

"China's inequality levels used to be close to Nordic countries and are now approaching US levels."

Picture by: Zhang Duan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Inevitably, those at the top of the food chain are going to do everything in their power to ensure their offspring stay there. 

So, given the stakes, if you had a few thousand spare yuan burning a hole in your back pocket, wouldn't you fork it over for the "Way to Success Gaokao Package"?

Offered by the luxury five-star Shangri-La hotel in Beijing, CNNMoney reports that students are put up in rooms on specially-reserved floors and get discounts on room service and spa treatments.

Oh, and then there's a further 30% discount on a limousine if you want to arrive to the test centre in style. Hopefully students don't leave their calculators or spare pens in the back of it.

If that's too much of an expense, the BBC reported last year that the Dazhong Taxi service in Shanghai saw 1,000 Gaokao taxis booked out online within just six hours. One firm in the Fujian province even put on free taxis for students, while it has been known for taxis to be given yellow signs that grant them right of way when delivering people to centres.

Picture by: Wang Song/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

How do you really get to the Gaokao promised land though? Practice, practice, practice.

To see to it that their teens are thoroughly on their study grind – and it is an all-consuming daily grind by all accounts – some families hire professional Gaokao nannies.

By way of Tencent Finance example, Zhao Yang is one Shanghai university student who earns 300 yuan a day to chat encouragingly with his younger charge and stay up with him during all-nighters.

For some, the house still presents too many distractions. That's where boot camp comes in.

According to China Youth Daily, the programme for Moatanchang, perhaps the country's most famous camp, can cost over €7,000. It draws nearly 20,000 students annually – four times the town's population. 

Picture by: Zhang Duan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

To aid all that study, people are increasingly turning to supplements. 

Speaking to CNNMoney, one worker in LBX Pharmacy in Beijing said that in the weeks leading up to the test, parents were calling in a panic, searching for any medications that would boost exam performance.

Huang Yangling said:

"Just today, a student's father came into purchase some Isatis root for Gaokao-related reasons.

"In reality, it won't have any actual effect unless it's taken over a longer period of time. You can't just eat it for two days and expect a change."

If you're counting on a miracle, there's a retailer for that, too.

Wang Jing, who sells ornaments at the Imperial College heritage site, told CNNMoney that she'd seen a significant increase in the sale of wooden tablets inscribed with blessings to spur on academic success.