Students seek extra edge from drugs and prayer as exam fever grips China

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The Independent Online

Millions of students in China have started national university entrance exams, two days of extreme pressure to perform which has driven ambitious parents to procure amphetamines, oxygen and air-conditioned hotel suites to make sure their offspring win a precious college place.

This year, parents have been trying to obtain the stimulant Ritalin to give their children before the matriculation exams. Ritalin is prescribed to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and parents have been bribing doctors and ADHD patients to pass on the amphetamine-like drug.

Education has been highly competitive in China ever since the philosopher Confucius helped formulate the exam system for public service in the T'ang dynasty AD618 to 907.

Last month, doctors warned parents against giving children too many protein injections to boost immune systems before exams.

A record 10 million high school students are sitting the gaokao, which started yesterday and continues today. They are competing for 5.7 million college and university places, of which a fraction are at elite schools such as Tsinghua, Beijing and Fudan universities.

Access to tertiary education has improved dramatically, but the children of one-child families, the so-called little emperors, face pressure from their extended families, whose future expectations rest on their shoulders.

At Confucian temples, also known as Scholar Temples, parents light incense sticks and pray for success. "Although colleges are accepting more students these days, the competition remains high because everyone wants to get into the best schools," one anxious mother in Changchun told the Xinhua news agency.

Ambulances are on hand at exam centres to treat students who pass out from stress, and building sites are required to stop working between 10pm and 6 am to ensure students get a good night's sleep. Drivers blowing their horns near matriculation halls can be fined. Families decamp to hotels near the exam halls to guarantee peace and quiet, and noisy aircraft have been rerouted.

Local media complain about the "matriculation economy", where pharmacies sell magical products to provide extra brainpower and consultants charge £280 a month for counselling and cooking special meals. In Sichuan, candidates visited a hospital to breath pure oxygen in the hope of enhancing their concentration.

There are tragedies every year. Two weeks ago, a student took an overdose of sleeping pills in the north-western Ningxia Hui autonomous region, unable to deal with the pressure.