BEIJING • Ms Cheng Nan has spent years trying to ensure that her 16-year-old daughter gets into a college near their home in Nanjing, an affluent city in eastern China.
She wakes her at 5.30am to study maths and Chinese poetry, and packs her schedule so tightly that she has only 20 days of summer vacation. So when officials announced a plan to admit more students from impoverished regions and fewer from Nanjing to local universities, Ms Cheng was furious.
She joined over 1,000 parents to protest outside government offices, chanting slogans like "Fairness in education!" and demanding a meeting with the provincial governor. "Why should they eat from our bowls?" asked Ms Cheng, 46, an art editor at a newspaper.
Parents in at least two dozen Chinese cities have taken to the streets in recent weeks to denounce a government effort to expand access to higher education for students from less developed regions.
The unusually fierce backlash is testing the Communist Party's ability to manage class conflict, as well as the political acumen of its leader, President Xi Jinping.
The cut-throat university admissions process has long been a source of anxiety and acrimony.
But the breadth and intensity of the demonstrations, many organised on social media, seemed to have taken the authorities by surprise. At issue is the state-run system of higher education, in which top schools are concentrated in big prosperous cities, mostly on the coast, and underfunded schools dominate the nation's interior.
Placement is determined almost exclusively by a single national exam, the gaokao, which was administered across China from last Tuesday. The exam gives the admissions system a meritocratic sheen, but the government also reserves most spaces in universities for students in the same city or province, making it harder for applicants from the hinterlands to get into the nation's best schools.
Earlier this year, the Education Ministry announced it would set aside a record 140,000 spaces - about 6.5 per cent of spots in the top schools - for students from less developed provinces.
But the ministry said it would force the schools to admit fewer local students to make room. Against the backdrop of slowing economic growth, the plan set off a flurry of protests and counter-protests.
In Wuhan, a major city in central China known for its good universities, parents surrounded government offices to demand more spots for local students.
In Harbin, a north-eastern city, parents marched through the streets, calling the new admissions mandate unjust.
But in Luoyang, a city in Henan province, one of China's poorest and most populous, protesters countered that children should be treated with "equal love".
The government has responded cautiously, censoring news reports of the outcry and ordering the police to contain the demonstrations.
NEW YORK TIMES