A vocational student stuns China by beating university competitors in a math competition

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A 17-year-old vocational student from the countryside China became a social media celebrity after reaching the final round of a math competition, beating many others from top universities and raising questions about the education system.

Jiang Ping, who studies fashion design, finished 12th in the Alibaba Global Math Competition, one of 802 who made it to the final round – an eight-hour test taking place on Saturday.

A video featuring an interview with Jiang received more than 800,000 likes and 90,000 comments after it was posted on social media by Damo Academy, the competition’s organizer. Most expressed surprise, while some wondered if it was real.

Jiang, who could not be reached for comment, said in the video interview that she felt she did not deserve to participate in the competition even though she enjoys working on advanced mathematics because it “brings out my desire to explore ‘.

The congratulations poured in. People visited her parents’ home in a village in Jiangsu province on China’s east coast with alcohol and money to show their support. Her photos hung on the walls of shopping centers in her hometown of Lianshui. Zhejiang University and Jiangsu University praised her on their Weibo accounts.

Although it was unclear how Jiang ended up at the vocational school, her story reminded some in China inequality between rural and urban areas and how that can make it harder for even talented students to climb the economic ladder.

“Although Jiang Ping is openly celebrated, many Chinese feel deep down that her story highlights the hopelessness of Chinese education,” said Jiang Xueqin, a China-based education researcher. “The odds are fundamentally stacked against ordinary Chinese, without power, wealth or ‘guanxi,’ the Chinese term for connections.

Inequality in education appears to have increased in recent years. Spending on education in rural areas in 2019 was 17% less than in cities for China’s nine years of compulsory education, which does not include high school. In 2013, it was only 2% lower, based on calculations using data from a Beijing University report on the urban-rural gap in per capita spending.

Data from the Ministry of Education shows that 70% of students in China’s vocational schools come from rural areas. The high percentage suggests the education system operates like a caste system, Jiang said, the researcher said.

Jiang, the math prodigy, is the only vocational student among all the finalists. The others, who are mainly Chinese, come mainly from top universities such as Cambridge, MIT and Caltech, but also from China’s top two, Tsinghua and Peking University. The winners will receive prize money of $2,000 to $30,000.

The competition was launched six years ago by Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant. Jack Ma, then executive chairman of Alibaba Groupsaid the goal was to find students who love math and encourage and support them.

Jiang did well enough on the entrance exam to enter high school, the Communist Party secretary of her vocational school told state broadcaster CCTV.

The secretary said she applied to vocational school instead of high school because her older sister and close friends were studying there. Other Chinese media said this was because she came from a poor family and the vocational school gave her a scholarship.

Attempts to reach Jiang were unsuccessful. A call to her school went unanswered and Damo Academy, a subsidiary of Alibaba, did not respond to an email.

Jiang says in the video interview that her plan is to go to a good university. That is not impossible, although vocational education students only have access to certain institutions.

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