Rural Chinese student sparks awe and suspicion after beating math elites in global contest

A fashion major from a vocational high school in rural China has amazed the nation by outshining elite students in a global math contest – but the teenager’s underdog story has now been mired by controversy.

Jiang Ping, born in a poor village in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, ranked 12th out of 802 shortlisted competitors – mostly from prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, and MIT – in first-round results released on June 13 by DAMO Academy, the organizer of the Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition.

Launched in 2018 by Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, the free online contest is open to math enthusiasts worldwide, though Chinese math majors typically dominate the top places. This year’s top 85 finishers will win prizes from $2,000 to $30,000.

Jiang’s high placement – in the first of the contest’s two rounds – was a remarkable achievement for a student from one of the country’s vocational schools, which suffer deep-seated social prejudices and whose graduates occupy the lowest rungs of China’s educational hierarchy.

Her success initially garnered nationwide acclaim, with multiple Chinese state media outlets jumping on the story and a deluge of online commentary buoyed by seeing a vocational student do so well in an international math competition.

But doubts about the 17-year-old’s math skills have gained momentum online since the end of last month, ahead of the release next month of results from the much more challenging second round. The organizing committee has yet to address them.

Suspicions cast

Jiang’s gift for math came to the fore in junior high, where her scores far outstripped those of her peers, state-run news agency Xinhua reported. She was later trained by math teacher Wang Runqiu at Lianshu Secondary Vocational School, where she studies fashion design.

Wang, a three-time finalist in the contest, helped Jiang to teach herself advanced math over the past two years, according to Xinhua.

Since Jiang’s top-20 finish in the first round was announced, a related hashtag topped searches on X-like platform Weibo, amassing more than 650 million views so far. In her hometown, her image beamed from television screens at local malls.

Jiang finished the final round on June 22, and the results will be released in August.

However, just a day after the final, Richard Xu from Harvard Business School, who placed 190th in the first round, announced on China’s Quora-type site Zhihu that he, along with 38 other contestants, had filed a joint letter to the organizing committee asking for an independent investigation into Jiang and Wang’s answer sheets from the qualifying round.

The letter cites “evidence” of alleged fraud, including a theory of “collaborative cheating” headed by Wang, who came 125th.

Four days before the final round, Yin Wotao, a member of the organizing committee, had defended Jiang in a soon-deleted response to a skeptic on X.

“Some math amateurs have indeed placed well in the qualifying rounds in past years,” given the moderate difficulty and generous 48-hour time limit, Yin argued.

Blocked from accessing Yin’s short-lived comments by Chinese internet restrictions, users posted on the Lianshui county government’s website, demanding an official investigation into Jiang and Wang.

On June 27, the local government confirmed what until that point had been an online rumor that Jiang scored only 83 out of 150 in a school math exam held after the qualifying round. The next day, it provided a formulaic response to further related queries, saying “the investigation is underway.”

Soon after, all the posts relating to Jiang were taken down and there’s been no update since.

Social stigma for vocational students

Among the cacophony of commentary, some suspect the harsh public scrutiny of Jiang is rooted in social prejudice against vocational students.

These students make up the bottom 40% in China’s senior high school entrance exam, or “zhongkao.” They do not qualify to enter regular high schools, where students cram for “gaokao,” China’s notoriously daunting college entrance exam.

In a society where poor academic performance is often equated with moral failings, “lazy bones,” “small-timers,” and “delinquents” have become bywords for the cohort who perform poorly on the zhongkao at 15 and are generally resigned to toil in factories for the rest of their lives.

This represents a stark reversal from the 1980s and 90s when vocational schooling was respected as a sought-after path to “iron rice bowls,” a popular term for secure jobs, amid the country’s urgent need for technical workers. However, the boom soon died down as higher education expanded in 1999.

As China races to meet its ambitious “Made in China 2025” goal to become “a world manufacturing power,” Beijing has been strengthening vocational education in recent years. But structural discrimination in China’s schools, universities and workplaces means society still favors academic degrees over trades.

Another ‘disappeared Einstein’?

In an interview with The Beijing News, a Communist Party-owned newspaper, Jiang said she wanted to go college and that her dream school was Zhejiang University, a top academy in the e-commerce hub Hangzhou. But that could still be difficult despite her apparent maths proficiency.

Jiang’s mentor Wang told the state-run Xinhua Daily that due to restrictions on major choices for future vocational education, she can only apply to three colleges in Jiangsu province, with her best option being a second-tier public university.

“China selects and categorizes talents way too early and too rigidly. This has greatly limited individuals’ future options and paths,” said Zhao, citing Germany and Finland as better examples of dual-track schooling with greater flexibility for students to shift between vocational and academic tracks.

Beijing’s attempt to emulate those European nations by encouraging resource exchanges between the two types of schools over the past decade has met a lukewarm response from high schools busy coaching students to score higher in the “gaokao” university entrance exam.

According to Zhao, Jiang is already “a lucky rarity if she’s truly gifted in math.” But he warned she may become a “disappeared Einstein” – one of the many buried talents in China’s education system.

The jury is still out, with second-round results due next month.

Jiang considers math her “Plan B,” prioritizing fashion design for future study, according to The Beijing News.

Zhao said working in a factory is a “reasonable choice” for the 17-year-old village girl, who as a vocational student has limited options for higher education.

“After all, she has a mouth to feed,” he said.

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