China's exam cheats go high-tech

By Stephen Wong

SHANGHAI - In early June, Chinese police were unusually busy catching "spies". But the "spies" were not trying to steal state secrets, they were students using cutting-edge spy-ware to cheat in make-or-break national college entrance exams.

Despite it being increasingly difficult for fresh university graduates to find good jobs, and though the chance of high school students being admitted to universities has grown slimmer due to the fast expansion of university enrollment, entrance exams remain very competitive.

In China, higher education

is perhaps the only way left for poorer youth to climb the social hierarchy.

According to data from the Ministry of Education, some 10.2 million high school

graduates took part in this year's college entrance exams. But just 60% are likely to be given places in universities across the country.

This has caused fierce competition, and cheating in exams has become rampant. So much so that the Ministry of Education installed closed-circuit television networks to monitor all test venues. However, as the Chinese say: "Good is strong, but evil is 10 times stronger," and this has only led cheaters to turn to more sophisticated means.

Despite the unprecedented security, exam cheaters in this year's exams were fearless. Aided by their parents and sometimes even teachers and local officials, some cheaters used expensive, high-tech spying devices.

The devices uncovered were reminiscent of those seen in spy movies: transmitters embedded in pencil erasers or watches, wireless microphone gadgets the size of a bean, earplugs as thin as a vein, and high-definition cameras shaped like buttons. The devices were able to bypass wireless shield and metal detectors, police said.

In an operation before the June 7-8 exams, police in northwestern Jilin province busted a gang manufacturing and selling the devices and which was also providing test answers. Sixteen people - mostly college-educated professionals - were arrested and more than 600 spy devices confiscated.

Police believe the gang, which was operating in seven provinces, had sold some of its products to cheaters in the national college entrance exam.

Exam cheating has become an industry, said Ma Hongzhe, a police officer at Songyuan, a small city in Jilin that made national headlines over the rampant cheating at its entrance exams. It is an industry with a clear division of work. Some in the gangs specialize in manufacturing the spy gear, some in stealing the test questions, and others in sending pupils answers with wireless transmitters from outside the exam halls.

Just 10 minutes after obtaining the test questions, the gangs were able to send answers to any student who had bought the spy-ware all around China - while also making sure that the cheaters' papers were not identical, police said.

In Songyuan, police uncovered 14 cases of spy devices being sold to pupils this year, with 25 people detained on criminal charges.

The spy devices are not cheap. One set of devices and answers was sold for 20,000 yuan (US$2,900), the average yearly income of a blue collar worker in a Chinese city. But parents are eager to send their children to universities and do not hesitate to pay for them. At Songyuan, parents and students were seen openly discussing answers at the exam recess, state-run newspaper the China Youth Daily reported.

The cheaters at Songyuan were not only supported by their parents. Two high school teachers in Songyuan, Liu Yanhua and He Shujie, were caught selling students spy-ware devices. Through selling the ear pieces and receivers they made a profit of more than 400,000 yuan, police said.

Several senior government officials at Qian'an county, Songyuan, were also caught accepting bribes from exam cheaters last year. Among them included the vice county magistrate, Hou Liqiu, vice education chief Yu Zhanyu and three policemen.

Aside from the financial benefits, there are other incentives for education officials. In China, college enrollment rates are often linked to the performance of education officials and teachers.

Customers for the spy-gear are not limited to college entrance examinees. The industry is present in almost all major exams, from national English-level tests and college entrance tests to lawyer's qualification tests and civil service tests.

In January, nearly 1,000 people were caught cheating on the notoriously competitive civil service exams. The number caught cheating was the largest ever for this exam. More than half used technology and answers provided by illegal organizations in exchange for money, state media said.

To counter the rising number of cheats, the government deployed intensified security around college entrance exam venues, with Jilin mobilizing at least 10,000 police to patrol the exam venues during the three-day exam.

But it was not enough. In Songyuan alone, at least 33 students were caught using electronic earphones and receivers. The number could be just the tip of the iceberg.

The province has said it will invest nearly 50 million yuan to install anti-spy devices in 2010, and is considering buying wireless-monitoring vehicles to patrol exam venues, at a cost of at least 100 million yuan. Police have complained that spy-gear manufacturers swiftly develop new technologies that can beat anti-spy systems.

There is no law against cheating in exams, so cheaters are only disciplined. But selling, buying or possessing spy-ware without authorization is a crime. Selling spy-gear to exam cheaters could result in up to three years in jail, a relatively short term considering the huge profits available. But the rising number of pupils being caught has led to calls for them to face legal punishment.

While harsher legal penalties may reduce cheating inside exam venues, they are unlikely to address other means of cheating practiced by the rich and powerful.

According to state media, government officials in various cities have faked their children's ethnic origins so that they could be enrolled with lower marks - Chinese universities have preferential policies for ethnic minorities. In southwest China's Chongqing municipality, 31 students faked their identities to get extra marks for the entrance exam, including He Chuanyang, who scored a higher score than any other art student in Chongqing. His father and mother are both government officials.

Some officials managed to get direct enrollment for their children, a special treatment supposed to be reserved for outstanding students. At Songyuan, most of the 10 students enrolled by elite universities without exams in the past three years were children of senior local officials. This year's direct enrollment list was also dominated by children of high-ranking officials, and the authorities had to destroy the list after it was exposed by the media.

The college entrance exams are crucial for Chinese families, as they can determine whether a student enters the country's educated elite or joins the general workforce. In a country with wide gaps between rich and poor, the powerful and the underprivileged, the college entrance exam is one of the few chances where youngsters from all backgrounds can compete on a level playing field.

If entrance exams are unfair this could widen social gaps. Some say that children's moral values are also at stake - how can people expect a child taught to cheat to grow up to be an honest citizen? Professor Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, says the cheating will have far-reaching effects on the nation's talent selection system.

With government officials, parents and teachers setting such a bad example, it's hard to put all blame on the students or on new technologies. When corruption becomes the norm, children and technology will only adapt accordingly.

Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist from Shanghai, China.