Drones deployed to catch cheaters in China's brutal Gaokao exam

10m students are competing for just 3m places at the country's universities

Drones deployed to catch cheaters in China's brutal Gaokao exam

At an exam site in Changchun, northeast China's Jilin Province, a student undergoes a security check to search for electronic devices [Zhang Nan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images]

While Irish students start their second week of state exams today, China’s infamous Gaokao continues to make headlines. Pity those easily distracted, as the examiners deployed drones across exam centres to keep an eye out for cheaters.

Pupils taking the high-pressure, all-stakes exam have been known to indulge in risky cheating for years, with several schemes uncovered throughout the exam’s history.

While the government is reluctant to release figures of those actually caught cheating, the near espionage-level means by which they try are widely circulated as a warning to others who might be tempted.

In the past few years, a student was discovered with a special pair of glasses enabled with a camera, by which he was sending black-and-white stills of the exam to an outside source. Water bottles fitted with tiny cameras and wallets with radio receivers sewn into clothes are routinely discovered, while once in Sichuan province, as many as 40 students were caught using a smart pen to send back test questions, with answers relayed to their ear pieces.

A Chinese police officer showcases some of the cheating devices discovered in 2016 [ChinaNews]

This year, the Chinese examiners made great efforts to weed out anyone trying to cheat on the exam, which – like the Leaving Cert – is the only part of a student’s education that counts towards university matriculation.

Students assembling at the massive test centres were asked to walk through metal detectors, while biometric fingerprint and face recognition technology was used to ensure that those taking the exam were actually who they claimed to be. Mobile phone signal-blocking was used, as well as camera-fitted drones zooming above the students, seeking out any sign of cheating.

Gaokao is notoriously brutal, with school leavers assessed in Mandarin/Cantonese, maths, English, and another subject of their own choosing. As of 2016, new laws were introduced forbidding cheaters from having the chance to repeat the exam for several years, while anyone caught facilitating cheating can face up to seven years in jail.

The pressure on the students is intense; in 2017, roughly 10m school pupils sat the exam to battle it out for one of the 3m spaces in China’s 2,200 universities. As the majority of China’s top-tier third-level facilities are in Beijing, the capital also reserves places for local students, making the competition for these spots less intense. Additionally, a leg up of extra points is awarded to members of China’s 55 ethnic minorities.

Without a good Gaokao result, most students will most likely see a future of low-paying factory work. After decades of the country’s one-child policy and with an ageing population, the cultural assumption that children will support their parents – and increasingly grandparents – into old age means cheating may seem like the only path to financial security.

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