Degrees of deceit





Xiao Liu was extremely nervous as he stood in line on January 8 to sit the College English Test-4 (CET-4) exam, which every university student in the mainland must pass to get a degree. But it wasn't the test that gave Liu the jitters. 

The college senior - who had passed the exam two years earlier - was in the line that day to take the exam for one of his gemer (friends). His only fear was that his new fake ID card might not fool the test monitors. 

Mr Liu is what's known in Chinese as a qiangshou, or hired gun. Their services can be engaged for just about any test in China, including the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and even the Chinese civil service and accountants' exams. 

As exams approach, schools around the country are plastered with advertisements for qiangshou. Students say the notices are even found in dormitory toilets. 'I urgently need someone to help me pass the TOEFL exam,' said a handwritten note posted on a wall at the China Communication University. 'If I pass, I am willing to pay well.' The paper contained a mobile phone number, but no name. 

But with school officials quick to tear down such advertisements, the internet has become the main forum for arranging the services, usually via college bulletin boards. Students often have more than one mobile phone number, and so initial plans are often made anonymously via text message. 

'A lot of people become qiangshou because they think it's an easy way to make money,' said Zhu Li, a senior majoring in English at Capital Normal University. A fluent English speaker, Ms Zhu said she had been approached several times by classmates to take English exams for them, some offering as much as 1,000 yuan. 'I told them, 'I don't know how to do this. I'm afraid.'' 

Many anxious students are now also turning to professional test-taking companies such as The Global Gunman Group, which provides test solutions for 23 local and foreign exams. The Gunman Group website lists a 24-hour mobile phone number and email address, and promises to respond to queries within 24 hours.

The company makes no bones about its services. A 'hired gun' for the January 13 TOEFL costs 12,000 yuan, a year's salary for the average urban worker. For the CET-4 English exam, taken by six million non-English majors, the company offered three options: a hired gun for 2,000 yuan; answers in advance for 4,000 yuan; or answers provided during the test for 1,200 yuan via its own wireless device. The website describes the devices as super-sleuth imported 'satellite answer receivers' no bigger than a thumbnail. 

China has obviously come a long way since the Qing dynasty between 1644 and 1911, when participants in the rigorous imperial exam resorted to all sorts of tricks, including smuggling in mini-books and cheat sheets the size of a fingernail. An exhibition dedicated to cheating, in Beijing's old Imperial College, displays the shirt of one cheater covered in Chinese characters. 

Beijing education officials deny that the answers to state exams are being leaked, arguing that those who set the exams are locked up for 24 hours prior to the tests. However, students widely believe that the answers can be bought, and prior to last month's CET-4 exam, websites were posting what they claimed were answers to the exam as a sort of public service. 

Gunman also offers fake university degrees, complete with transcripts and other supporting documents that it says can be used to get jobs with state-owned enterprises and foreign companies. It claims the credentials can be verified on university websites, indicating some illegal method of infiltration into the universities. And they can even pass 'strict examination' by foreign embassies. 'Supplies are limited,' says the site, 'so please get in touch with us quickly.' 

A reporter for the Rednet website in Hunan quoted police officials as saying they could take no steps to deal with companies such as The Global Gunman Group because they had committed no clear violation of the law. The Global Gunman Group site was mysteriously shut down in December, but reopened soon afterwards using a new registration name: The Great China Education and Testing Consulting Website, which is still operating. 

'Cell phones are a significant part of cheating,' said Mr Liu, who explained that with a mobile phone he helped two friends simultaneously on January 8, by text messaging the answers to one friend in a nearby classroom while sitting the exam for another. 'I can send messages without ever taking the phone out of my pocket.' 

The use of mobile phones and other telecommunications devices to cheat in exams has grown steadily in recent years. Last year, more than 100 people taking the adult college entrance exam were caught using mobile phones to get answers - accounting for 40 per cent of those found cheating. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education banned students from taking telecommunications devices into exam rooms. Anyone found breaking the rule is not allowed to sit the exam again. 

Education officials in Beijing have turned to a digital detector to help sniff out the growing number of students using electronic devices to cheat in college entrance exams. The small silver box, dubbed the 'cell phone detecting dog', can pick up mobile phone signals within a 15-metre radius. When a mobile phone is detected, the unit vibrates and a red light flashes. However, the Gunman Group boasts that its wireless technology can easily avoid such detection. 

The detector was first used during the adult college entrance exam on October 16, but not a single cheater was caught. One proctor said the device failed because the signal from text messages was too short to allow detection, and even if it did pick up a signal, the digital dog could not tell where it was coming from. 

Hired guns, some of whom travel around China on assignment, are said to use fake ID cards to enter testing sites. Some companies even search for English experts who resemble the client student. Mr Liu's fake ID card, bearing his photo but his friend's name, cost him 100 yuan and took two days to obtain. 

Mr Liu, who has taken English tests on behalf of others three times, denied that he did it for the money. 'I'm just doing this to help my friends,' he said, smiling. 'You can buy me lunch or a coffee, but I won't accept your money. 

'I score about 60 per cent in the exam so as not to arouse any suspicions.' Mr Liu said he scored about 90 per cent when he took the exam for himself. 

'My friends might not be able to get 20 or 30 per cent on their own.' He added that cheating was now endemic. According to Mr Liu, about 25 per cent of the students in his class of 30 did not pass the CET-4 test on their own, and his university is considered a top school in China. 

Nor is cheating limited to exams such as the CET-4 or TOEFL. It is now common even in routine university exams. 'We don't use qiangshou for these tests,' he said, 'just our cell phones and ourselves.' 

Mr Liu added that students didn't cram for tests any more. 'The night before an exam we don't study our textbooks,' he said. 'We just make notes in our cell phones.' 

According to Mr Liu's girlfriend, also surnamed Liu, some universities take part in cheating, sometimes giving a passing grade for transcripts of students who failed courses. 'It helps you find a good job after you graduate, and that's good for the university,' she said. The couple see no moral dilemma. 'No one thinks it's strange,' said the young woman. 'Since we were young, our teachers taught us that it was immoral to cheat,' she said. 'But we never really took this to heart. We don't feel cheating in exams is really cheating. After all, it doesn't hurt anyone. In fact, it can help people.' 

There seems to be little concern on the part of students involved in the cheating. 'We're not afraid because so many people are doing this, and few have failed,' said Mr Liu. 'The success rate is exceptionally high. I've never seen anyone caught.' 

Ms Liu said others taking the test would not report anyone, even if they saw cheating going on. 'It's so common,' she said. 'Everyone's doing it.' 

When told that some qiangshou had been caught, Mr Liu responded: 'Yeah, but maybe thousands are getting away with it.' And if he gets caught one day? 

'I'll run,' he said smiling, but with a serious undertone. 'That's why I wear running shoes whenever I help someone take an exam.'




© 2013 Paul J. Mooney