The views expressed in any article published in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Joseph Foster or Bob Lupoli.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Culture of Chinese Cheating? - good is strong / evil is 10x stronger!

By Stephen Wong

SHANGHAI - It's possible that no other country has as many exams as China. From school admissions and job recruitment to promotion in the civil service, exams are an inseparable part of Chinese life. Incomplete statistics show that there are 200 government-organized nationwide examinations and that nearly 40 million people take national tests each year. The number would be much bigger if local-level tests were included on the list.

Incidences of cheating, however, are increasingly rampant. Even the college entrance exams and civil service exams, the most competitive and strictly supervised exams in China, are not without cheaters. This year, organized cheating was found in the college exam venues of northeast Jilin province, western Guizhou province, northern Shanxi province and central Hunan province.

The Chinese authorities have tried everything to prevent cheating. They installed closed-circuit television networks at exam venues, sent police to patrol exam rooms and made candidates of the national college entrance examinations sign an honesty declaration. However, as the Chinese say: "Good is strong, but evil is 10 times stronger", and cheaters continue to develop more sophisticated techniques.

If catching cheaters at national-level exams is a tough task, catching them at regional government tests is even more challenging, given that local governments often lack the resources or resolve to impose strict levels of supervision.

Exam organizers at a northwestern city, however, have figured out a novel way to deal with cheats. They hired pupils to help supervise an exam for police officers. The result - nearly 10% of the exam participants were caught cheating red-handed.

The government of a district of Wuwei, in northwestern Gansu province, hired 18 pupils to watch over a promotion examination for 265 police officers, judges and procurators. The pupils were sent to nine exam rooms, where they watched over the examinees together with adult invigilators.

Those pupils, averaged 12 years old caught 18 cheaters, whilst their adult coworkers caught only seven. Each student was awarded with stationary worth 50 yuan (US$7.32). The authorities annulled the cheaters' scores but did not issue any further penalties.

The government hired the pupils because "adult invigilators are often very careful and cautious" and sometimes "sympathize with the cheaters", according to Huang Ni, human resources chief of the Liangzhou district of Wuwei city. Innocent pupils, however, are fearless.

On these grounds and given the "good results", Huang indicated that the practice of hiring young invigilators would probably continue.

While the Liangzhou district government hailed the successful role of student invigilators, the incident triggered nationwide discussions on moral bankruptcy in the adult world.

Internet forums and newspapers are full of criticism against the cheaters - cops, judges and procurators - as they are professionals who are supposed to enforce law and justice. The Liangzhou district government is also being criticized for laying its responsibilities on minors.

Beijing News compares the pupil invigilators to the child in Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" who points out the simple fact that the emperor has no clothes on while adults pour out compliments. Likewise, cheating in exams among adults is so commonplace that everybody closes their eyes, except the innocent children.

A commentary of the national Guangming Daily newspaper stated that adults don't lack the eyes to see problems. They lack the courage to expose them. The Chengdu Commercial Daily criticized the adults for disrupting social morality while expecting children to help them restore it.

The Liangzhou government has good reason to distrust the adult invigilators, however. In a society that values guanxi, or interpersonal relationships, many are often reluctant to expose the cheaters. They have good reasons to fear. Zheng Hong, a female invigilator in Songyuan, Jilin province, was beaten up after expelling a cheater from the college entrance exam venue in June. Her shoulders were scratched and her legs kicked by the cheater's mother, who thought her son was "unfairly" treated.

In Liangzhou's case, authorities turned to pupils because the adult invigilators are public servants who would be reluctant to offend their colleagues.

To curb the rampant cheating, Chinese lawmakers and scholars are calling for heavier penalties against the cheaters. In most cases, if they are unlucky enough to get caught, they simply get their scores canceled or certificates revoked.

Lawmaker Zhang Zhao'an proposed an examination law at this year's national congress. In fact, Chinese lawmakers have been mulling an examination law since 2002 and even completed a draft in 2005, but so far the law is yet to come out.

But many people doubt whether a new law would deter the cheaters.. It is not uncommon in China that even where legislation is strong, the means of enforcement are helplessly weak.

Exam cheating has deeper roots in the moral decay of today's Chinese society. The Chinese, long proud of the Confucius virtues of honesty, courtesy and loyalty, have been experiencing a moral and ethical void ever since those values were broken by the Cultural Revolution and replaced by a feverish pursuit of money and power. The order of the market economy, however, is yet to be fully established. Thus cheating becomes widespread - not only in the exam venues, but also in the academic field and in the government itself. Cheating has become so widespread that the cheaters no longer feel shameful.

Recently, quite a few university presidents have been accused of plagiarism. But few of them were penalized or apologized. Huang Qing, the vice head of Southwest Jiaotong University, was arguably the most severely punished scholar - the university in July revoked his PhD after he was found to have plagiarized certain bits of his doctorate dissertation, which was passed nine years ago. In defense, Huang said "only 7%" of his dissertation was copied and that his opponents were trying to bring him down by making a fuss over a small issue.

More recently, Zhou Zude, president of the Wuhan University of Technology, was accused of plagiarizing an article of which he is the first author and his student Xie Ming the second. The university cleared Zhou of any wrongdoing, and said Xie wrote the article and Zhou had no idea his name was on it. As for Xie, he was not allowed to obtain his PhD that year.

Rampant plagiarism in the academic field has prompted the authorities to use software to detect it. Nearly 400 colleges are using the software, developed by the elite Tsinghua University, to check the theses of their students. But the students have been quick to find counter-measures., the Chinese version of eBay, provides anti-detection services for plagiarizers. A salesperson on Taobao claimed an article which was half plagiarized passed the software's detectors with his help.

Some Chinese now joke that pupils, who are yet to be polluted by the adult world, should not only serve as invigilators, but also as anti-graft personnel.

However, Ge Jianxiong, an outspoken professor at Fudan University, pointed out that the pupil invigilators would soon collaborate. "The cheaters [in Liangzhou District] were caught by surprise this time ... If there is a second time, the cheaters will use their influence over the pupils' parents and teachers to force the pupils to collaborate."

Without institutional supervision, it is very likely that every effective invigilating approach will lead to another "innovative" way to cheat.

China needs the media, courts and anti-graft organizations that are independent from the tightly-knit circles of interest groups to act if they are to fully expose the follies of cheating.

Otherwise, when everyone is somewhere along the chain of corruption, it is a mission impossible to improve the moral standard of the whole country.

Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai. 

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