This year, China had 17 top scorers, or zhuangyuan (状元), on the national college entrance examination from various provinces who opted for Hong Kong universities over China’s elite institutions, Peking University and Tsinghua University. Traditionally, China’s top universities have aggressively courted these top test scorers, seeing them as an important measure of their elite status. When asked why they had opted for Hong Kong, the students responded that they wanted to experience a different approach to education. In this cartoon, posted by artist Kuang Biao (邝飚) to his QQ.com blog, an old-fashioned Confucian school master, symbolizing the backwardness of China’s higher education system, reaches for top testers depicted as potted plants flying off into the sky on golden wings. For background on standardized testing in Chinese higher education, see CMP fellow Zhang Ming’s article, “Top testers a distraction for China’s schools. ”

In the past, before universities in Hong Kong had entered the competition for top scorers, top scorers from various provinces generally went to Tsinghua University or Peking University. In recent years, as Hong Kong universities have stepped into the game, Chinese institutions sense a real danger that top scorers will be lost, and the media have also jumped on this story about the threat to the excellence of Peking University and Tsinghua University. This is why we’re seeing this situation now . . .

The University of Hong Kong is a mirror on ourselves that is less distant that other elite universities. Because the admissions and enrollment capacity of HKU is limited, there is no way it can run off with all of our top-scoring students. But this mirror brings our own maladies and deformities into sharp relief. If we do not address our shortcomings, and if we do not wipe away the stains that blacken our own face, but rather respond only with more robust efforts [at the same sort of game], then there is really no way to save us.