It was a chilly April night in 2020 in Orange County, California. The clock read 3.20am and Zang couldn’t sleep, plagued by insomnia since the state issued a stay-at-home order on March 19 amid a coronavirus outbreak. The then-22-year-old had come to the United States from China in 2016 to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and was a month away from graduation. Now, another big decision loomed: return home or, as his parents preferred, stay and earn a graduate degree. In the depths of Covid-19, the prospect of going back to China – with its limited flights, overpriced tickets and strict quarantine policies – was depressing. But with his not-amazing 2.5 grade point average (GPA), getting into an American graduate school did not seem likely. Still wide-awake, scrolling through WeChat , Zang was struck by an otherwise unassuming post between an advertisement for contact lenses and a photo of a dog swimming: “Fall enrolment. No GRE is required. TOEFL 95 or IELTS 6.5. GPA 3.0 is preferred but not required. The last two spots.” Besides the fact that neither transcripts nor high scores on either English-proficiency test mentioned seemed to matter, there was, right at the bottom, the logo of a top-40 American university. This was but one of many education consultants selling their services on WeChat. Some offer help writing a résumé or a school application essay, whereas others, like the one Zang found, sell something he read in Chinese as “ bǎolùqǔ ”, or “guaranteed acceptance”. Why Chinese students are no longer choosing US universities The prospective clients are Chinese speakers, mostly applying for master’s programmes in the US. This particular firm’s posts on WeChat showcased previous letters of acceptance – with students’ names redacted, of course – along with reviews from ostensible – and ostensibly satisfied, of course – previous customers. And it is not just WeChat. Bǎolùqǔ agencies are all over social media, from Twitter to Zhihu – a Chinese Q&A platform similar to Quora with more than 100 million monthly active users. On Instagram, posts linked to the hashtag “保录取”, or bǎolùqǔ , hover around 6,000. Zang was well aware of legal and illegal ways students can increase their chances of getting into a good school. The most notorious case of American “guaranteed acceptance” blew up after an FBI sting in 2019, focused on a man named Rick Singer, a middle-aged college-admissions consultant who lived in a mansion in Newport Beach, California. Across the US, from the University of Southern California to Yale, Singer charged celebrities and wealthy families hundreds of thousands of dollars to falsify credentials, fake test scores, even Photoshop images of applicants playing sports favoured by their desired institutions. “I’ve done 761 of what I would call ‘side doors’,” bragged Singer (played by Matthew Modine) to one of his clients, the prominent New York corporate lawyer Gordon Caplan, in a scene from the 2021 Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues . “The ‘front door’ means getting in on your own. The ‘back door’ is making a donation, which is 10 times as much money. I’ve created this kind of ‘side door’ because with the back door, there’s no guarantee.” Mulling over the WeChat ad, Zang was sure that among the massive number of Chinese students in the US, many must have bent the rules of admissions and never been caught. As Zang told me in the lobby of his apartment building in November 2021, he had considered the highly public Singer case, and thought, hey, there was a guy who had the right connections, and “just knew how the world works”. According to a 2022 report on returnees’ employment by Zhaopin.com, a Chinese recruitment services provider, the average starting salary for American-educated Chinese back home is 13,719 yuan (US$1,929) per month, 46.5 per cent higher than local graduates. To apply at Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies, Chinese job applicants with overseas degrees are distinguished from “Chinese graduates”, “Interns” and “International [non-Chinese] Graduates”, with their own “Overseas Chinese graduates” online application portal. But not all international degrees are equal. In 2020, one of Zang’s cousins, even with a master’s degree from a small US college, had trouble finding a well-paid job at Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent. The school’s international ranking hampered him. Admissions scandal brings up treatment of Asian-Americans Another of Zang’s cousins, who graduated from a community college in the US, was rejected by e-commerce group Alibaba (the owner of the South China Morning Post) in 2021 for lacking a master’s degree. “If I didn’t go to a graduate school with a good ranking, I’d probably be unemployed,” Zang said. Chinese citizens make up the largest group of international students in the US, comprising 35 per cent of the postsecondary student population, followed by Indians at 18 per cent and South Koreans at 4 per cent. Scholarships aside, international students pay up to double the tuition of their local counterparts, and according to the Association of International Educators, in the 2020-2021 academic year, international students contributed US$28.4 billion (HK$221 billion), and added 306,308 jobs to the US economy. “A number of universities around the world are keen to have more Chinese students because they’re cash cows,” says Joshua Mok Ka-ho, co-director of the Institute of Policy Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. “International education has become a major commodity for many of the established Western university systems.” Chinese students’ ability to get into college at home is determined almost entirely by how well they perform in a college-entrance exam called the gaokao , typically taken at the age of 18. But gaokao is systematically disadvantageous to students who lack a hukou household registration document in major cities. In August 2021 Fortune magazine reported that “Tsinghua and Peking Universities [the top two institutions in the country] each have a roughly 1 per cent acceptance rate, but that figure drops to about 0.1 per cent for applicants who lack a Beijing hukou , or address registered in Beijing city limits.” So, if the money is there but the locality isn’t, going international is the next-best choice. And both graduate and undergraduate applicants from China often outsource the process to agents who claim to help navigate the American admissions process. In recent years, companies that offer bǎolùqǔ to wealthy Chinese – much like Singer did for such Americans – have claimed connections to university deans themselves, or at least connected admissions staff who accept bribes to overlook their client’s low grades. And just as Singer had identified pain points to use as leverage, bǎolùqǔ consultants set prices based on the GPA: the lower the percentage, the higher the price. For students at a crossroads, such as sleepless Zang, bǎolùqǔ can feel like the only solution. “When the consultant told me my GPA is too low,” recalled Zang, “I felt desperate.” In 2020, Hiu Kit David Chong, a University of Southern California (USC) admissions officer from 2008 to 2016, admitted to the US Department of Justice to having accepted bribes from three Chinese students between 2015 and 2018. However low that number may seem, Chong’s subterfuge was suspicious enough to invite a federal operation in 2017. When FBI agent “Alex” emailed Chong with the subject line “Help to get in university” on behalf of his friend’s son, “Guoqiang”, who only had a 2.1 GPA, Chong said he would charge US$5,000 for students with a 3.0 GPA and decent TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score, but anyone coming to him with a GPA below 3.0 would be charged US$15,000, which included a surrogate to take the TOEFL test. In July 2018, Alex met Chong in Los Angeles, handing over Guoqiang’s transcript from a university in China that showed an equivalent of a 2.6 GPA. Four months later, on behalf of Guoqiang, Chong submitted a transcript of a 3.47 GPA, along with a fake résumé, a fabricated personal statement and a falsified letter of recommendation to USC. The same month, Guoqiang was admitted to USC. The problem? Guoqiang was an FBI fabrication. He did not exist. The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Chong on March 27, 2020, in California Central District Court for wire fraud, a felony carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison. Chong paid a US$40,000 fine and pleaded guilty in exchange for nine months of home detention. According to the plea agreement in USA v. Hiu Kit David Chong, he received about US$40,000 over three years from Chinese students and “Alex”. “He acknowledged what he did was wrong and wanted to take responsibility for it,” Chong’s lawyer Stanley Friedman told NBC News on April 2, 2020, “but he also thought he was helping people.” I first heard about bǎolùqǔ in 2018, at a weekend party full of Chinese undergraduate students in Newport Beach. The two-bedroom, oceanfront villa in a luxury resort was an overnight Eden, where the loneliness of living in a foreign country, along with associated academic stress, dissipated over the Pacific like its usual morning fog. On the balcony overlooking the beach, a young, stylish Chinese guy with slicked-back hair sat next to me. Through the effluvia of booze, cigarettes and a salty breeze, he told me he studied at USC as an international student, and lived 80km (50 miles) up the coast in Los Angeles. “If your GPA is not high enough for USC,” he told me in Mandarin after a drag of his cigarette, “I can help you with that. We have connections with the school.” I admit I was impressed at the time. I had attended Beijing Huijia Private School in China, where every student needed to prepare for the TOEFL and the standardised American college SATs. Back in 2015, ads selling SAT and TOEFL answers were already ubiquitous on WeChat. Knowledge gap: Americans know China less well than Chinese know the US In 2018, I was in my second year at the University of California, Irvine and, with my 3.191 GPA, USC – where a GPA of 3.5 or above was considered a minimum competitive advantage – seemed like a long shot. I declined the offer, but for Zang, two years later, stressed out and under Covid-19 lockdown, bǎolùqǔ seemed like the answer. Sitting himself up in bed, Zang said he could feel his heart pounding. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m saved. This is my chance.’” Zang quickly contacted the consultant in the ad, who requested a PDF of his college transcript to set the price, much like Chong would have done. From her selfies on WeChat, the consultant appeared to be a young woman who enjoys baking, which added a wholesome character to the smile beaming out of her profile picture. Zang sent her the transcript on WeChat. By morning, she had told him that with his GPA, getting into a master of science programme in technology would cost him between US$43,000 and US$45,000. Compared with the US$500,000 Singer charged actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, to have their two daughters admitted to USC, it was a bargain. Zang called his parents in China and explained the service, but they were sceptical. What if they paid the fee and he didn’t get in? What if the consultant blocked him on WeChat once he transferred the money? Zang told his parents the contract guaranteed that “if the firm cannot complete the service, all service fees will be refunded within five business days”. Not exactly binding. But however concerned they may have been, they still agreed to transfer US$22,500 to a bank account in China. Payment received, the consultant instructed Zang over WeChat to order two official, physical transcripts from his university and post them to a California address. “A little change needs to be done,” she explained over WeChat with her usual candour. “And the new transcript will be shipped from China.” This sounded more than a little fishy, but with his parents’ US$22,500 already sent, there was no turning back. After all, reasoned Zang, in China, sending expensive gifts or red envelopes full of cash is a common way to build guanxi (connections). He thought again of Singer, and believed the down payment must have been sent to school officials to secure his position, in much the same fashion. “You know, in China, guanxi works everything out,” Zang told me. “I thought the consultant’s guanxi with the school was the reason I got the offer.” Within two months, the consultant had taken care of everything, from the recommendation letter and personal statement to the official transcript, all sent off in a sealed envelope. Zang didn’t know how much his GPA would be inflated, or what his new personal statement would say. He thought it was odd that the consultant refused to show him the new transcript but he didn’t really care, he figured the money would go through the “side door” anyway. And on July 17, 2020, he received his acceptance letter. “I was so excited,” said Zang. “The money paid off.” Born in an underdeveloped part of Zhejiang province, in eastern China, Zang was a top student, but felt disconnected from the cities nearby. An only child, Zang didn’t have much of a relationship with his father, who was always working at the family fabric factory. It was Zang’s mother, a soft-spoken woman with gentle manners, who nurtured him. His parents were born in the late 1960s, and lived through the poverty and oppression of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Then, having benefited from Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the late ’70s, the family gradually accumulated wealth through manufacturing. An insider’s view of the highs and lows of US-China relations For Zang, good grades were the fastest way to escape a predictable career at the family factory for an exciting life in a big city. “No playtime unless homework’s done,” Zang recalled in that New York lobby. “If I broke the rule, my mum would spank me harshly.” In junior school, his after-school routine was homework, followed by extra mock exams set by his mother. It was harsh, but it worked. In 2014, Zang’s outstanding grades made him a candidate for the Chinese Physics Olympiad secondary school student science competition. That same year, his passion for science peaked after watching the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar . “I wanted to be someone like Professor Brand,” he told me in January this year on the terrace of his New York flat, “a hero who would sacrifice his family for the future of human beings.” In 2013, in the last year of middle school before his zhongkao , China’s high-school entrance exam, his parents had the idea of sending their son abroad for college, in much the same way relatives, colleagues and neighbours had been doing. With good grades and a Zhejiang hukou , Zang would have a better chance of attending the province’s top institutions, such as Zhejiang University, but they thought studying abroad would be the icing on the cake, a wise investment to guarantee a well-paid job. To the 15-year-old, studying abroad was a vague but exciting idea. He immediately agreed to it. The decision meant he now had to study for the TOEFL and SATs. His parents hired a private-education consulting agency that wrote his personal statements based on a questionnaire in Chinese, which asked him to list his extracurricular activities and achievements. This was the only part of the application process in which he took part. So it went: under the guise of application consulting, admissions fraud secured Zang a spot for a bachelor’s degree at a prestigious US university, and little did he know at the time, five years later, thanks to a post on WeChat, fraud would again earn him a shot at a master’s degree. None of this is unusual in China. A former employee at New Oriental, China’s biggest education service company, told Reuters in 2016 that he “wrote essays and recommendation letters for students when I worked at New Oriental, which I still do now for my own consultancy. I know there is an ethical dilemma but it’s the nature of the industry.” Why some Chinese universities are opting out of global rankings In September 2016, after a 13-hour flight from Shanghai, Zang arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, ready to start a new life as a physics major. Growing up, he thought physics was all about intergalactic exploration, so his calculus-heavy semesters caught him a little off guard. Add to this the language barrier, and Zang’s dreams of becoming Professor Brand were dashed by receiving several Cs and Ds in his first two years. Such stumbles often led Zang to question the family’s decision to send him abroad to study. He said he constantly felt a linguistic distance between himself and his Chinese peers, who had either come to the US at a younger age or studied at international high schools back in China. Had he stayed, Zang wondered whether he would have been admitted to Zhejiang University, where his academic life would have been smoother, studying in his native tongue. “The older I get, the more I’ve realised that everyone is at a different starting point,” he said in a flat tone, looking down at the floor in his apartment building’s lobby. “But I’m grateful I can stand on my parents’ shoulders and look at this bigger, diversified world.” “Students’ parents would always ask me if I could offer a bǎolùqǔ service,” says Sun Toma, an education consultant in China and an outspoken activist against bǎolùqǔ . “They thought I was unprofessional and unresourceful because I couldn’t.” Before the winter of 2019, Sun saw only sporadic ads for bǎolùqǔ on Zhihu. But since then, he has seen the number of ads surge. He didn’t pay much attention at first, until the ads started to damage his own application consulting business. Now, after having founded “反保录取组织联盟” (“ fǎnbǎolùqǔzǔzhīliánméng ”), which translates as the “Anti-Guaranteed-Acceptance Association”, in 2019, Sun is fully aware of the game, and advocates for students who have been played by it. “Students may not know how to report these companies for fraudulent practices,” says Sun. “These Chinese-based companies wouldn’t worry too much because lots of students are abroad. “For law enforcement agencies in China, it’s hard to define fraud, especially in the case when firms have actually offered some service.” Wang Wei, a police officer in Jiangxi province, explains that the intelligence department would first need to specify if it was a criminal or a civil case. “Civil cases go to court. If it’s criminal, the police have to sort out all the leads and evidence, along with the reasons why these applications are unsuccessful,” says Wang. “ Bǎolùqǔ cases have transnational elements and are individual cases. The process is going to be long and complicated, and it’s hard for the police to determine the nature of the case in the very beginning.” Sun reports much the same situation. “Police, even judges, in China lack the expertise in this area,” he says. “They usually handle such cases as economic disputes because they don’t want to spend too much time on such cases and are focused on higher closing rates.” Sun and his association members, after seeing bǎolùqǔ posts on Zhihu, report the accounts, efforts that have, according to him, resulted in the deletion of more than 2,000 posts, “but thousands of accounts are on the platform to disseminate the advertisements”. Since February 2020, about 50 students who once sought help from guaranteed-acceptance agencies have reached out to him. Most of them believed in the connections and were not aware of the fabrications. However, they were either expelled after enrolment or unable to get in touch with the agencies. “My friend was expelled from New York University for faking the official transcript. I’m now admitted to Boston University but I don’t dare enrol,” one student told Sun in December 2021. “The agency has taken over my application account and is threatening to report me to the school and US Customs if I refuse to pay the rest of the money.” Having received an offer from their chosen institution, students are admitted after submitting a sealed official transcript, which is when many hopefuls are caught. Sun describes seeing guaranteed-acceptance contracts stipulating that “‘the service ends once the student gets the offer.’ After that, it’s no longer the company’s business.” On August 13, 2018, seven months before the Rick Singer admissions scandal, two Chinese international students filed the first civil lawsuit related to bǎolùqǔ in the US, against New York-based company Diguojiaoyu and an individual named Zhang Shuntao. Jin Ruili and Yu Shanchun, former graduate students at Boston University and Columbia University, respectively, claimed that Diguojiaoyu falsified their transcripts without their knowledge, ultimately leading to them being expelled. According to court documents, in December 2016, one month before Yu’s graduation from Ohio State University (OSU), a friend told her about Diguojiaoyu, a self-proclaimed “Wall Street high-end education consulting firm since 1998”. Yu was introduced on WeChat to a Diguojiaoyu representative, Zhang Shuntao, who claimed he had used the company’s service to get into Harvard. Yu was dubious about the 100 per cent success rate but gradually began to trust him. Zhang told Yu that most of the money would go to Columbia University, with a small amount going to Zhang and Diguojiaoyu. Yu first made a down payment of US$2,000 via Chase QuickPay, then her father transferred about US$43,000 to a Diguojiaoyu representative in China named “Hong Liu”. Zhang instructed Yu to order an official academic transcript from OSU and post it to a California address. Later, she was accepted by Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. In 2018, Peter Krates, from Columbia University’s Office of Student Conduct, contacted her, claiming that she had submitted fabricated application materials. Krates declined requests seeking comment for this article citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law enacted in 1974 that protects the privacy of student education records. In a countersuit, Diguojiaoyu denied all the allegations and claimed students were fully aware of the procedures. Reluctant to report academic misbehaviour to relevant administrators, the Chinese collectivist mindset, which holds that “insiders” should not report the misconduct of their peers to “outsiders”, is accustomed to silence when it comes to cheating. Among WeChat’s 1.24 billion users there are three types of official accounts: subscription, service and enterprise; which are available to media, government organisations, individuals or businesses, for communication and audience engagement. On March 29, 2017, an education company called Nanjing Gaibosi registered a subscription account and a week later it was verified under the name “Diguojiaoyu”. But, on March 19, 2019, seven months after the first court complaint, it quietly changed its name to 鼎恒国际 (Dinghengguoji), and in English, DH International – touting itself as a “Wall Street education consulting firm established in 1998” and registered by the US federal government (Post Magazine did not find any such registration). Call it Diguojiaoyu, or call it DH International, it has always been Nanjing Gaibosi. According to internal records, the company was founded in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on February 16, 2017, by two shareholders: Zhang Jian and Liu Hong, the latter being the recipient of Yu’s US$43,000 payment. Chinese student ‘paid US$6.5 million for US university place’ The case against Diguojiaoyu went on for four years in the New York Southern District Court – “for too long”, said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Kevin Wu, over the phone in December 2021. “Until now, we can’t figure out the claimed inner connections nor the elite team because they wouldn’t cooperate.” Leonard X. Gillespie, the company’s lawyer, did not respond to emails seeking comment. On October 19, 2022, the case was closed. The court ruled that Diguojiaoyu and Zhang Shuntao should pay US$45,000 each to Jin and Yu in compensatory damages, and US$5,284 for lawyers’ fees. Jin and Yu have returned to China and couldn’t be reached for interview, but a quick check online shows that DH International, the new Diguojiaoyu, is still operating the same old Nanjing Gaibosi business. In published articles on its WeChat subscription account before September 16, 2022, DH International boasted: “2020-2021: 500+ offers from top universities. 99% VVIP clients got into the top 30 universities. In 22 years, our admissions rate of NYU has remained 99%+.” John Beckman, senior vice-president for public affairs and strategic communications at New York University, and Shonna Keogan, its senior director of executive communications, did not respond to emails seeking comment regarding the above advertised 99 per cent. Dinghengguoji.cn, until it was taken down recently, was a replica of Diguojiaoyu’s site, and under the “media coverage” section were the logos of Reuters, CNN, NBC, ABC, Tencent News and Sohu News, among others. However, the only news coverage Post Magazine found was a self-published article, “鼎恒国际教育分析进入世界名校的重要性,” which translates to “DH International’s analysis on the importance of getting into elite universities”, on om.qq.com, a content-creation platform under Tencent, like a TikTok for text. According to the article, “over 20 years of analysis, students who went to the colleges through DH International make millions [of yuan] on average while other students only make 80,000”. Back in December 2021, I called the number on the DH International website, and a man who claimed to be the boss picked up. He sounded young and vibrant. I told him I was writing an article about education consulting services and asked if I could interview him. He bragged about his company’s special access. “We have advantages. For students with the same background, [those who used our services] could get into better schools,” he said. “That’s impossible for traditional education consulting companies.” I asked him if the pandemic had changed the admission consulting market. “Recent years have been tough for traditional education consulting companies, but we’re doing good,” he said. “We can spend 4 to 5 million [yuan] a year on Google to ensure we’re among the top-three search results because we make a hell of a lot more.” When I asked about DH International’s relationship with Diguojiaoyu, he hesitated, then said they were not the same, but had “worked together in the past for a short period of time”. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon this March, I followed Google Maps’ route around Herald Square in Manhattan, to the office address listed on DH International’s website, the same address as Diguojiaoyu’s. I still didn’t understand why it advertised itself as a “Wall Street company” when the office is in Midtown. But standing in front of the colourful storefront window displays, I looked up at the eighth floor on 31 West 34th Street, DH International’s office. Before entering the building, I imagined everything that could happen: the security guard might ask me for an ID; the eighth floor might be a dusty, unoccupied office space; or maybe the man claiming to be the boss would be there, and he might not be happy to see me. None of the above transpired. The lift rocked gently on its ascent before a door opened onto a bright corporate office, where I asked the receptionist about the education consulting company. “They moved,” she said, “about three years ago.” And almost two years after he saw the advertisement that would change his life, taking a risk he did not fully comprehend, Zang and I met in a Starbucks. He spoke in a casual, easy-going manner. And with good reason: before he’d even graduated, he had received an offer of a well-paid job at a top technology company in China, and his life in the US was coming to a close. “Going to a graduate school [in the US] might have been the best decision of my life,” he said in a low voice, staring down the straw towards his iced grande latte. “The money spent on the service will be covered by my salary within a year.” Illustrations by Victor Sanjinez Garcia.