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A traffic police officer high fives students as they arrive for the first day of the National College Entrance Examination, in Yantai, in China's eastern Shandong province, on June 7.STR/AFP/Getty Images

A record number of Chinese high school students on Wednesday began the gaokao, a notoriously difficult college entrance exam that could define their futures. But at the other end of the university experience, millions of graduates are struggling to find jobs in an increasingly dire employment market.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, 12.91 million students will sit the gaokao this year, an increase of almost a million over 2022 and double the number who sat it 20 years ago. The multiday exam tests Chinese, mathematics, a foreign language (most choose English) and a science or liberal arts subject. In their answers, students are encouraged to quote texts written by President Xi Jinping and “reflect the spirit” of his speeches and official ideology.

During the exam period, construction sites stop work, new speed limits are imposed around test halls, and honking is prohibited in order to ensure a noise-free environment. In Beijing, 800 motorbike-riding officials have been deployed to shuttle test-takers to their destination if they are stuck in traffic. Anti-cheating technology has also been installed at many sites, according to state media, including facial recognition scanners to catch “surrogate test takers” paid to take the exam on someone else’s behalf and detectors to sniff out electronic cheating devices.

First established in 1952, a top score in the gaokao can potentially transport someone from the poorest village in rural China to one of the country’s top universities. A lacklustre performance can mean repeating the last year of high school or missing out on university altogether. Chinese media often highlight the stories of those who sacrifice everything to retake the test year after year, striving for the top score of 750, which can earn a place at an elite institution such as Tsinghua University in Beijing, Mr. Xi’s alma mater.

The number of Chinese students going to university has risen dramatically in the past two decades, as the quality of schooling has risen nationwide and the number of higher education institutions has doubled to more than 3,000. In 2003, about 6.1 million students took the gaokao, 63 per cent of whom went on to university. That figure is more than 90 per cent today.

As in many Western countries where a university education has increasingly become the norm, the job market is flush with graduates, and many young Chinese have reported employers demanding a master’s degree or higher for entry-level, non-academic jobs.

Crackdowns on the tech and education sectors have wiped out millions of well-paying white-collar jobs in recent years, and in April, youth unemployment hit a record high of 20.4 per cent. This is likely to rise, as another 12 million university students are due to graduate in the coming months.

“China’s education raced ahead of the economy, which means that more diplomas were handed out than were needed by a manufacturing-based economy,” said Keyu Jin, author of The New China Playbook, which documents the country’s economic ascent. “There’s a big mismatch between expectations and the reality of the economic circumstances.”

China’s State Council earlier this year announced a 15-point plan to help young people find work, including explaining skills training and internships and creating new roles at state-owned enterprises.

But the government’s response to young people’s concerns can often be brutally dismissive, an attitude that comes right from the top. Last month, Mr. Xi said Chinese youth should “eat bitterness,” or endure hardships, in order to get ahead. He encouraged them to move to the countryside, as he did during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese state media have lauded those who take up menial jobs, such as a woman in her 20s who became a refuse collector after she couldn’t find work as an accountant. A new reality show that premiered this month features wannabe popstars learning instead to operate farm machinery and live as peasants.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for many young Chinese, whose families have often sacrificed and strived to ensure their children escape the trap of low-paying, back-breaking agricultural and manufacturing jobs. Those being asked to “eat bitterness” are also facing a far greater burden than previous generations, as China’s population rapidly ages. Last year there were 2.26 working-age people for each senior citizen; that figure will be 1.25 by 2042, when today’s gaokao takers will be in their late 30s.

Many young women are under pressure to abandon the work force entirely and focus on having babies, as the country limits access to abortion and divorce and pushes pro-natal policies in response to the falling birth rate.

Political commentator Cai Shenkun has accused Mr. Xi of having a “contemptuous” attitude toward the country’s youth.

“Why would he want young people to give up a peaceful and stable life and instead seek suffering?”

With files from Alexandra Li and Reuters.

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