Why do Chinese students think it’s OK to cheat?

Kelly Yang says criminalising cheating in the gaokao university entrance exam is a good start to fixing the problem. But parents must also teach their children the right attitude to learning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 12:05pm

Cheating is now officially a criminal offence in China. Students found guilty of cheating in the notoriously difficult university entranceexam will now face up to seven years in prison. Many are calling the punishment overly harsh. Even so, I think it’s exactly what China needs, if it is enforced fairly.

In recent years, cheating has got so out of control that, three years ago, in the small town of Zhongxiang, Hubei ( 湖北 ), a group of gaokao invigilators found themselves under siege as enraged parents and students trapped them in their office and threw rocks at the windows, shouting, “We want fairness! Let us cheat!”

University entrance exam is not the be-all, end-all in life

It’s not just the gaokao – it’s the SAT, the GRE, and a whole host of other exams. An estimated 90 per cent of all recommendation letters for Chinese applicants to United States universities are fake. Some 70 per cent of application essays are not written by students, and 50 per cent of grades transcripts are falsified.

Once the students arrive on campus, more cheating services are available. Last month, Reuters published a devastating report on cheating by Chinese students in the US, finding a thriving black market which includes services to write essays, do the students’ homework, and take their exams. It seems you can now get a degree from an Ivy League school without ever leaving your house!

Thousands of Chinese parents take to the streets to protest university admission quotas

With so much evidence of cheating, the question is: why do Chinese kids cheat? Well, because they want to and because they can. Most Chinese parents tell their kids from a very early age that their goal in life is to get into a good school. That’s it, not learn the right skills or to find inspiration in school to seek meaningful work. Just “get into a good school”.

Education gets reduced to a product, one which, like all other products, can be bought and sold

By emphasising the destination rather than the journey, education gets reduced to a product, one which, like all other products, can be bought and sold, and, if need be, snatched. That’s what we’re seeing here: kids who fundamentally do not accept that cheating is wrong. And why should they when they do not view education for what it is, a chance to broaden one’s mind and learn new ways of thinking? Rather, they see it as a status label, something akin to a handbag.

The second reason that Chinese students cheat is because they can. Here, the cheating services are as much to blame as the testing services, organisations like College Board, which owns and administers the SAT and for years has been recycling old material from previous tests to save a little money.

In March, Reuters reported that, since 2013, there have been at least eight occasions in which test materials were compromised, but the SAT went ahead and administered them anyway.

8,000 Chinese students in US expelled for low grades, academic dishonesty, breaking rules

When the testing authorities knowingly administer compromised tests, they’re as guilty as the cheating services and the parents who condone or, worse, encourage their children to game the system. They are all enablers, helping to fuel a global cheating epidemic that robs us all.

As dire as the situation is, I still hold out hope. The fact that China is introducing more severe consequences for cheating on the gaokao is a good first step. I hope the punishments are doled out consistently and fairly. And I hope the College Board follows in China’s footsteps, stops being penny wise and pound foolish, and restores much needed integrity in the SAT.

Finally, I hope Chinese parents stop telling their children to just “get into a good school”. This may have been good advice in the old days but not in today’s innovation-driven, entrepreneurial times.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk