To many, China’s Assessment industry is a great myth: 2000+ years of history forged its unique testing culture and traditions; Regulatory storms can radically overturn this policy-driven market overnight; Indomitable candidates are globally renowned as “testing maniacs”; Innovative testing and learning technologies are sweeping the market constantly.
Being a Chinese exam-delivery provider, we are often asked by our international clients:
Is it difficult to launch and operate in China assessment market?
What makes a qualification popular?
How tech-savvy are Chinese candidates?
Shall I register my assessment programs with Chinese authorities?
To help understanding the dynamic testing industry in China, this article aims to guide global testing stakeholders to uncover the mysteries of this market, by revealing the assessment culture, market trends, internet infrastructures and technologies, privacy and legislations, business models, cheating and ethics, and many other appealing topics.
1. Different Rather than Difficult: What does China’s assessment market look like?
Unlike many other countries, China is a policy-driven market where the legislation changes can be overwhelming. For example, in 2021, the “Double Reduction” policy has severely tightened the K-12 education market, and other legislations like Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) also imposed stringent restrictions or entry costs on market access. For international test sponsors who deliver assessments in China, there can be unexpected risks or unfamiliar tasks to be dealt with. However, those challenges are simply due to the “difference” in market nature, and are not necessarily being “difficult” to be tackled by cooperating with the right local partner.
Despite the uncertainties, China features an appealing market considering the huge population base and candidates’ hunger for international certification programs. The certificate fever, or the enthusiasm of taking tests can be rooted from thousands of years ago, when Keju, or Imperial Civil Servant Examination System of China, served as the only and fairest way for people to enter the central government system, and move up the social ladder quickly. Until today, the Chinese still believe that “Testing can change or even determine the trajectory of one’s Life”, and the exam-oriented education system is shaped with this rationale. How can one stand out from millions of peers to seize the life-changing opportunities like being accepted by a top-tier university? For Chinese candidates, excellence in test scores is certainly the best card to play.
On the other hand, the cheating culture in China evolved naturally and changes with time. In the past, cheating in test used to be considered a “misconduct” rather than a “breaking the law”, or could even be perceived as a personal favour among friends. It was not until 2015 that legislative measures were implemented to include cheating as a criminal offence for national exams. Since then, cheating in public exams (including organized cheating and cheating at the personal level) can be sentenced up to 7 years of imprisonment with a fine. In addition to such legal sanctions, test organizers can also disqualify misbehaved candidates by cancelling their scores, or even issuing a lifetime ban from taking the exam. Today, with the help of anti-cheating technologies, like the widespread usage of AI-enhanced on-site proctoring robots and multi-camera remote proctoring solutions, the overall cheating rate among Chinese test takers is observed to be declining, while awareness of the ramifications of cheating is increasing.
2. What Makes a Qualification Popular: Test programs that would work in China
The most popular test programs in China are those of market driven demands, those with licensure to work, or those which are hard to find substitutes. For example, English tests like TOEFL and IETLS are being widely accepted, as the test results are clearly required by the score users, as long as the candidates are planning to studying/working abroad, or wishing to achieve a “master key” to open doors to alluring job opportunities in foreign companies located in China.
Test programs related to licensure to work are also known as “must-have” qualifications for Chinese professionals. They are the admission exams that one must pass to practise in certain job positions, and thus can determine one’s career direction. For example, Teacher Certification, which is necessary to obtain before teaching in schools; Enrollment exams for governmental and quasi-governmental organizations, and many other similar programs.
Under the cultural norm of standing out from others, “nice-to-have” certificates from populated industries are well sought for in the Chinese market. On the one hand, the huge market size itself is appealing; on the other hand, people have to survive the fierce competition with the certificates in hand to find (better) jobs. The top 3 test programs in this sense are: certificates for finance and accounting, project management skills, and IT skills.
Finally, certifications in some developing industries which are still incompatible with international standards. For example, certificates of personal trainers, architects, nutritionists, etc., that have just emerged domestically but have already been well developed in overseas markets. These are the prospects of the next qualification rush in China.
3. The Myth of the “Great Firewall of China”: What is it and how should it be handled?
The so-called “Great Firewall of China” is not a physical wall, rather, it is a combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the Chinese government to regulate the internet inside its territory. Technically, it uses IP filtering, DNS filtering, TCP packet analysis, etc., and blocks the internet access (including links derived from the same engine) once the keywords or sensitive contents appears. Constantly updated with certain topic-picking algorithms, the internally logic, checklist and algorithm are not publicly available and vary over time. Conversely, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access foreign content is also inviable, as it is clearly defined to be illegal by the Cyber-Space Administration of China (CAC).
The Great Firewall can be very problematic for international test sponsors who deliver computer-based exams in China through overseas servers or websites. Based on ATA’s past experience, those exams frequently encounter severe latency and the data transmission is unstable: it can go well at one time, but get blacked-out on another day; or run smoothly in one city, but become totally inaccessible from other cities.
How can one tackle this problem and ensure a quality candidate experience during overseas sponsored online examinations? The best practice is to host the content within China through domestic websites that are certified with the ICP (Internet Content Provider) license, a permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) to allow China-based websites to operate in China. In other words, international computer-based exams are recommended to be deployed via domestic TDS (Test Delivery Systems) using China’s local servers.
4. Is China a Technology-ready Market for Testing? Internet infrastructure & candidate digital literacy
As long as programs being operated within the Great Firewall, the Internet infrastructure and data speed is quite matured if not at world-leading ranking. Last year, 1.2 out of 1.4 billion Chinese subscribed to mobile services, placing China among the most developed mobile markets with the world’s top 5 fastest mobile internet speed at 165.38 Mbps (non-mobile internet access speed ranks 15th with 172Mgbs in the global market). In the same year, China added 285 million 5G connections with declined 4G adoption, as consumers are increasingly switching to 5G services.
On the other hand, China features a good level of digital literacy nationally. With younger workforce aged 20-40 being native users of smart mobile devices, Chinese millennials and Gen Z consider tablets and smart phones being an essential part in their digital social life. Kids or elders, though less tech-savvy, are also frequent users of smart devices, especially in metropolitan cities. This has also cultivated fertile soil for the popularity and high-acceptability of ground-breaking EdTech and testing technologies among Chinese candidates.
5. Administering Exams under the Radar of the Chinese Government: What is the threshold?
Would it be possible to run exam programs in China without working with the local government? The answer is Yes or No, depending on the scale and the test volume being delivered. International test sponsors should be aware that there is a threshold for publicly administered examinations. Once the annual volume surpasses 100,000 the test program will be considered having social impact, then an entrusted partnership with local government like MOE (Ministry of Education) or MOHRSS (Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security) will be necessary. Especially with the pandemic complication, test sponsors delivering exams in China cannot just turn a blind eye to the anti-pandemic restrictions or the reporting requirements issued by the local governments, since the authorities can decide whether, where and how an exam can be arranged in the local districts.
6. Doing Business in China’s Assessment Market: Your local partner is the best remedy
In fact, working with local partners is always encouraged, to avoid risks and improve efficiency when operating business in China. Apart from partnering with testing offices of the related ministries to localize international test programs and promote the brands, cooperating with domestic commercial training schools/learning providers with rich learner resources (e.g., like promoting English tests via study abroad agencies and language training schools) can also greatly help in boosting the candidate volume.
Test centre channels (test sites, exam devices or software, network infrastructures within the Firewall, etc.) and local professional staff (inspectors, native proctors, administrators) are the determining factors to the successful delivery of the test programs, and can directly affect candidate experience. When lack of those local resources, the best remedy for international stakeholders is to collaborate with experienced domestic test service providers. For example, China’s leading EDP (Exam Delivery Provider) ATA Online is the trusted partner to turn to, as international test sponsors can always get the best candidates experience, flexible and localised services instant data for prompt decisions via ATA’s turn-key solution for test management and administration.
I would not claim that the above clarification has demystified the China Testing Market, at the very least, this has paved the way into understanding the complexity of this vast and rich history market. What else would be exciting to unveil? What are your opinions or insights about this two-folded market with huge opportunities and challenges? Leave a comment to get engaged with this initiative of “De-mystify the Dynamic Testing Industry in China”!