A recent survey conducted at several top universities in China, including Peking University (PKU) and Tsinghua University, shows that the percentage of rural students enrolled at those institutions has dramatically declined over the past two decades. At PKU the percentage dropped from more than 30 percent in the 1990s to about 10 percent today. The numbers are similar at Tsinghua and other more selective Chinese universities. The most obvious reasons for this decline include China's rapid rate of urbanization and the increasing number of job opportunities available to the rural population. Still, the decline is a worrisome sign that opportunities for China's rural population to attain higher social status may be narrowing. The survey findings also reinforce an already evident trend: that social mobility in China is not as fluid as the country's economic development might suggest. In any society, even an ideal one, social stratification is inevitable. But for a modern society to prosper and grow it must minimize barriers to economic advancement. Otherwise, gaps will widen among the social strata, creating potential resentment and instability at the lower levels. In China, the traditional path to a better life was the imperial examination system (ke ju), which began in the 7th century during the Sui dynasty and was open to anyone who demonstrated sufficient intelligence and drive, regardless of social status. Ke ju selected the most promising administrators for the state bureaucracy. As such, it served for centuries as a portal through which smart and hard-working youth could become part of China's political class. This transformation could greatly change the life not only of the individual aspirant, but also his entire family. Cancellation of the imperial examination system in 1905, during the Qing dynasty, cut off this mode of access. In the 1950s, the division between the people and the ruling elite was reinforced with the introduction of the hukou system
, a resident-identification program that created an official division between rural and urban dwellers. The biggest beneficiaries of the system have been urban dwellers, who have greater access to employment, social welfare, education, medical care and housing than their rural counterparts. Despite years of campaigning by the state for hukou reform and a more equitable distribution of benefits, little has been achieved. If anything the disparity seems to be widening, which makes the findings of the recent university survey all the more troubling. One of the few portals left for upwardly mobile youth in China is the college entrance examinations (known as gao kao). The gao kao system is intensely competitive, allowing qualified applicants regardless of pedigree an opportunity to enter a university (usually in an urban area), earn a degree and find a well-paying job. While the system falls short in many ways — stipulating, for example, lower quotas for rural applicants than their urban counterparts and thereby further widening the gap — it remains the most efficient path toward the elite class, both politically and economically. And this, much like the imperial examinations once did, helps to anchor stability and, to some extent, secures the power of the elite class. While an expanding educational system was once seen as a great leveler of modern China, a growing imbalance in the distribution of resources between the country's rising middle class
and their less privileged rural counterparts is making it harder for rural youth to move upward. College tuition and fees are becoming less affordable. Many of the top universities choose students based on their acquired specialties — for example, music or technology — which wealthy students are better able to develop. This hurts rural students, who are more likely to have attained high scores through hard work. Meanwhile, many selections are based on personal networks, which further impedes poor students. The result is a narrowing of options for rural youth, the brightest of whom may not have enough money or the right connections to get into the top schools. Barriers are also being raised by the increasingly close connections between China's political elite and business elite, both urban based. As it becomes harder for China's rural population to break through these barriers, it could lead to growing grievances over inequality and intensifying social unrest — Beijing's greatest fear. Therefore, Beijing may need to work to increase access, creating opportunities for the country's massive rural population.