China Probes 'Gaokao' College Entrance Exam Cheating Claims

china-student-june82015.jpeg A student reviews her lessons to prepare for the college entrance exam in an undated photo.

China's education ministry has vowed to clamp down on "surrogate" test-sitting in the country's high-pressure college entrance test, or "gaokao," which saw more than nine million candidates enroll in a high-stakes bid for places at the best universities on Sunday.

The move came after a journalist at a cutting-edge newspaper based in the southern city of Guangzhou went undercover to expose the lucrative business of surrogate test-sitting, in which academically gifted students from poor backgrounds earn large fees to sit the test on behalf of less talented students who can pay.

"We have required the Jiangxi provincial education department ... to immediately investigate and confirm ... the June 7 report in the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper," the ministry said in a statement on its website.

"We have also asked the police to coordinate the relevant public security departments in a criminal investigation," it said.

The newspaper reported that parents would fork out fees of up to several million yuan to surrogates in a bid to get their children into the highest-ranking Chinese universities.

Syndicates hire surrogates, who add their real photos to forged identification papers with the real details of their clients, before taking the test on behalf of their "client."

Police in the eastern province of Jiangxi, the focus of the newspaper's expose, have detained two suspects according to the tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Other methods include completely fabricated identities, which are then used by students to enroll in college, the Southern Metropolis Daily report said.

It cited cases of surrogate test-sitters earning around 25,000 yuan (U.S.$4,000) if their test-score is high enough to gain entry to a top-tier university, quoting surrogates as saying that they are from poorer backgrounds, and earn the money while they themselves are still in college.

According to the article, more high-tech equipment for identity verification would make surrogate test-sitting much harder.

Reporter questioned

A source close to the story told RFA that the undercover journalist who broke the story was hauled in by local police for questioning soon after the scandal broke on Sunday.

"I'm sure that he is assisting with the investigation, which doesn't just encompass the gaokao, but other examinations as well," the source said.

"There have been a number of scandals like this over recent years, and there are large and powerful organizations involved," the source said.

The report follows a similar scandal last year in the central province of Henan, in which dozens of people were handed punishments for their involvement in the practice.

According to the ministry, the use of wireless in-ear devices to help students cheat on the Chinese, English, and math-based test is also widespread.

However, high-tech solutions have already been implemented in some parts of China, with fingerprinting and iris-scanning used to verify candidates' identities  in Sichuan and Liaoning provinces, the Global Times said.

The authorities in Henan have also used drones to scan for suspicious wi-fi signals around test centers, it said.

A common problem

Education industry worker Yi Feng told RFA that the problem is endemic to China's high-pressure education system, in which a person's future can hinge on a single test-score.

"In my district, our school's leadership is evaluated on the basis of how many students win university places," Yi said. "So in a sense, this is probably fraud at a collective level."

Xie Jiaye, head of the California-based America-China Association for Science & Technology Exchange, said cheating in tests is also a problem among Chinese students overseas.

"In the past, Chinese people coming to study in the U.S. were subjected to a very rigorous selection process, and this was a very rare phenomenon," Xie said.

"But a recent report found that 8,000 Chinese students were stripped of their degrees in the United States for examination fraud last year."

According to Xie, surrogate test-sitting isn't just confined to Jiangxi and Henan, but is already a nationwide phenomenon in China.

Not just tests

Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said academic fraud in China isn't just confined to test-sitting, either.

"You have examination fraud, fraudulent degree certificates," Sun said. "A lot of high-ranking officials paid somebody to ghost-write their PhD thesis."

"Maybe only a handful of them actually wrote their doctoral thesis themselves," he said.

Sun said he knows one young person who makes a living ghostwriting dissertations and theses.

"They openly publish their price list [for these services]," he said.

"It's no secret that you can get hired guns to take tests for you, and it's because the demand for it is there," Sun said.

He said the problem of academic fraud comes against a wider structural problem of unequal distribution of academic resources.

"The proportion of students from first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai who gain admission to the highest-ranking universities is very high, because their household registration is in those cities," Sun said.

Rural schools underfunded

By contrast, rural schools are chronically underfunded, he said.

"The facilities in elementary and middle schools in rural areas are terrible, and there are all sorts of restrictions on the sons and daughters of rural families gaining entry to high schools in the big cities," Sun said.

"Even if their parents are working in those cities, it will be very hard for them to get their kids into high schools there," he added.

Sun said there was far greater equality of opportunity before Communist Party rule brought in the "hukou" household registration system linking access to public services to a person's place of birth.

"My brother came from a rural area in Shandong province during the Republic of China [1911-1949], and he was able to go to high schools in Qinghai and Beijing because of his examination results," Sun recalled.

"Since 1949, it's been easier for rural kids to get into heaven than to get into urban high schools, because of the hukou system," he said.

The proliferation of private and vocational colleges has doubled China's university admission rate over the past decade, with around three-quarters of gaokao test-takers able to find a place in higher education, according to local media reports.

A total of 9.42 million candidates enrolled for the gaokao on Sunday, official media reported.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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