We want fairness. There is no fairness if you don't let us cheat." Those were the words shouted by parents and students in Zhongxiang, Hubei, as a crowd of some 2,000 protesters gathered outside a school cracking down on cheating in the national college entrance exam, or gaokao, this month.
Shortly after exam invigilators confiscated mobile phones concealed in underwear and secret transmitters camouflaged as erasers, a riot broke out outside the school. The mob trapped the invigilators inside and threw rocks at windows. One father punched an invigilator on the nose. The one question in all these parents' minds was: how can you dare ask my children not to cheat when it is endemic in China?
This question captures just how broken the system is. With cheating so rampant, just how do you reinstate academic honesty? By installing ultra-sensitive metal detectors to pick up anything with a wire, such as a school in Jilin did this year? The result was that female students couldn't wear bras. Or do you start with better ethics education? That's hard when teachers are selling seats in the front.
While it's easy to single out China, it is not the only nation with a cheating problem. I met up last week with an old student of mine - an incredibly smart and driven girl from Hong Kong who went to a top boarding school then a top university in the US. She asked me: "If everyone in my boarding school and in my university is using [the drug] Adderall to get ahead, am I being totally stupid trying to stay up and study … naturally?"
While the use of Adderall - used to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - without a prescription is illegal, my student estimated that 30 per cent of her class in boarding school and university were abusing it to gain an academic advantage. And why didn't she take it? "For silly, personal reasons, I guess," she said.
Is this what we've come to - has not cheating become "silly"? The campus newspaper of the University of Miami seems to think so. Last year, it published an editorial that said, "Students have been forced to search for ways to boost their drive and Adderall is indeed a solution … Others shouldn't look down on those who need … the extra push."
As a teacher, I am repulsed by this twisted logic. Cheating is an assault not just on your peers but also on all those before you, who sweated and toiled for their grades without the help of a pill or phone.
My student agrees. Yet, I saw the sadness in her eyes - that pained look of resigning oneself to injustice. Even if she never takes a single pill, will she ever fully believe in the academic system again?
This has to stop. We need to restore confidence in education by having a zero-tolerance rule when it comes to cheating - even if it is a first offence and even if others are doing it.
Those students on Adderall without a prescription should be thrown out of school and those who cheat on the gaokao should be banned from taking the exam. We owe it to those who don't cheat to make things right again.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org