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Cheating with Chinese Characteristics

Yesterday I detailed the many ways in which school officials cheat to pass inspections, so it’s no surprise that teachers often turn a blind eye to cheating in the classroom. Cheating/copying is pervasive throughout China, in every level of education and industry. A gov’t spokesperson even went so far as to say that copying was a kind of innovation.

If you’ve read my posts about copyrights in China (here, here and here) you already know about the problems caused by copying, so today we are going to look at the lighter side of cheating.

In the west I think we tend to idealize Chinese/Asian students as incredibly hard workers who are completely focused on their studies and hold their teachers in high regard. Many foreign teachers have been shocked the first time they give a test that many Chinese students boldly cheat, even though they lack proper cheating technique.

Example 1

In the winter of 2007 I assigned speeches for the first final exam I would be administering. It was a huge mistake to think that I could listen to 200 speeches on the same 8 topics without completely losing interest in what the students were saying, not to mention the bitter cold of sitting still for hours in an unheated classroom.

As their presentations dragged on I started to notice similarities in some of their speeches. It seems a group of 8 students had worked together and each wrote one speech for each of the 8 topics in advance. They had assumed that it was unlikely that they would all get the same topic.

Fortunately for me, two of them ended up presenting back to back at which point I pulled them out into the hallway. It took less than 5 minutes to get them to identify the rest of their group and hand over the offending materials.

Example 2

This first illustration, is perhaps one of the most common sights on test day in China, and I have seen it first-hand, countless times.

In my Hotel English class one of the students had skipped close to 80 hours of class and was desperately lost when it came time to take the final exam. Not only did he not understand the questions, he didn’t even understand the format of the test.

After about 10 minutes of staring at his blank page, he picked up his things and moved to a desk in front of one of the better students.

I had seen all of this clearly from the back of the class (I was making my rounds at the time), and paused a moment to watch this mastermind in action.

He hunched over his paper and carefully scanned his periphery to see if I was nearby. Certain now that he was in the clear he turned a full 180 degrees to furiously begin copying the test of the better student.

Example 3

Perhaps the most spectacular of the cheating failures I have observed was in a writing assignment I gave to my students in Chengdu. It was bad enough that 7 of the 20 papers handed in were word for word the same. One girl though, really took it to the next level, at the top of the page was written:

Name: April Melissa

She had been so careless in her copying that she had even copied the other student’s name. She managed to catch this, but being a well trained Chinese student she carefully crossed it out with a single line.

I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comment section below


  1. Pelo says:

    I don’t have any experiences to share, but I did get a good chuckle.

    This question is off-topic, but you mentioned a cold classroom in Example 1. I saw something on CNN a few months ago that I found strange. Students in North Korea were sitting in classrooms that were so cold that they wore coats and you could see their breath. Do you know if unheated classrooms are a common occurrence in Asia? A part of me wasn’t really that surprised about North Korea given the other things that go on in that country. China surprises me, though.

    • Tom says:

      All of southern China is this way. I would suggest my post title “Why I hate winter in China”

    • Tim says:

      I’m in Northern China and even in my partially heated classrooms students still wear their winter coats and are surprised when I don’t where mine (I personally can’t stand the thought of teaching with my coat on).

      I’ve busted so many students for cheating that I’ve lost count, but yet it somehow still amazes me how pervasive it is. Students all would speak out against it, but when put in the situation of having to choose, nearly all would choose to cheat – it’s just a way to achieve the result. In China, the end really does justify the means, and that pretty much sums up life here.

      How China will ever move to becoming a more creative culture escapes me. Deep inside of me I hope that foreign companies begin to pull their products out of China since so much of their IP and R&D is stolen, copied, and used – shamelessly too. It’s kinda scary and I don’t know any other way to get people’s attention. No one cares about copying and cheating. I’m saving the rest of my mini-rant for an upcoming post about logo copying (as soon as I get my system back up from my hard drive crash). Good stuff Tom.

      • Tom says:

        Well for now, China still seems to be encouraging the theft of IP and R&D by requiring these joint ventures, and then turning a blind eye to anything that happens. I have seen dozens of stories in Peoples Daily where the Chinese gov’t is shocked and appalled that someone would say China doesn’t take IP seriously, or that something in China was copied. Like I said in my earlier post, it’s like a joke here.

  2. john book says:

    RE: the heating of class rooms… In Japan we had a little gas operated heater. It came out in October and was gone by March. If I turned it on and it wasn’t considered a cold day… well, I tried not to even think about it. I tried to keep safe and not use it.

    Winter starts Nov. 1 in Japan and ends June 1. One November, I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts as it was so hot and humid. EVERYONE else was in insulated coats and jackets, scarves, ear-muffs, gloves and mittens, etc…..!!!!!! Everyone looked at me like I was really strange… I guess I was…. Department stores and other commercial shops and hotels start their furnaces on Nov. 1 and WON’T turn them off until June 1. Trains are the same.

    In the hot and humid summer the department stores leave all their doors open so the cold air-conditioned air will flow out onto the street and hopefully attract customers inside where it is cool.

    The kids did all the janitor work. The bathrooms were often not to be used. I once mentioned to an English friend that the floors in the hall and my one room hadn’t been mopped clean since World War II. The next day, the hall in front of my room and my room were washed and waxed so well they hurt the eyes!! The rest of the halls and room floors stayed the same….

    I never saw much cheating in my classes; high school or college. The high school kids are monster studiers! Often staying up until after 2AM! But, also as I said, the kids who weren’t always motivated to do well were satisfied with the “D” they got…never worrying about “F”s.

    From what I’ve seen in Japan, sin is defined as crime. Japanese try very hard not to do any crimes. There is very little theft and cheating going on that I was aware of in the schools. (other “sins”, like; gossip, cursing, sex without marriage, cheating on a spouse, etc… aren’t “crimes”. The crime, is bringing shame upon the family by letting these things become public.

    And as for government workers, some businesses and many contractors…well…. cheating is just another word for the job.

    • Tom says:

      In China for the most part F’s don’t happen. At one of my schools a teacher told me that a student needs to get below 20% in a class for them to have to retake it. That means if they just guessed on a multiple choice final exam, they would still pass. Also if you’re grade is below 60% you simply retake the final until it is above that, the teacher is expected to make an easier version for you too.

      • Bill Rich says:

        Thank heavens when I taught in China, I was allowed to fail students. And my made-up exams are usually more difficult than the normal one. And even in the normal one, I have at least 1 or 2 questions that are so hard that I only expect one or two best students to get – so I have an excuse not to give perfect grade.

      • Tom says:

        It sounds like you were at one of the more open schools. The few I worked in were much more like graduate factories. There was no need to actually learn anything, just spend your time at the college, and finish a few years later regardless of your effort.

  3. […] Yesterday I detailed the many ways in which school officials cheat to pass inspections, so it’s no surprise that teachers often turn a blind eye to cheating in the classroom. Cheating/copying is pervasive throughout China, in every level of education … Continue reading → […]

  4. Bill Rich says:

    I discovered problem like your example 1 too. I sort of fixed it by announcing that if I find more then one paper with 50% or more similar answers, I fail all of them, regardless whether it is the original or the copy. Students tried much harder in at least paraphrasing the original. But that was in a school where I can give failing grades.

    As for problems like example 2, I always stay at the back of the room, where its hard for them to spot where I was. And I walk very quietly.

    Students from China in North America seem to think they can get away with these practices too. They even sue the schools for failing them for cheating. But that is another story.

  5. Your examples don’t surprise me, mostly because I see this same kind of behaviour in my line of work (financial/security printing) in Hong Kong almost on a daily basis. One of the more noticeable blindspots of the Chinese mind is an inability or aversion to stating one’s own thoughts because of an inferiority complex – the need to fit in. I don’t know if you see it in students, but I (and my colleagues) see it all the time in professional life.

    Let’s discount the idea of cheating for a second. Ultimately, what we’re looking at is their inability to appreciate that, if one were to ‘recycle’ the work of others, it’s really about bringing in the ‘cancer’ of others into their own game. And most Chinese I know can’t see this! (BTW, I’m Chinese myself.)

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I know that you are Chinese, Naked Listener and you are definitely more open minded than most. I enjoy reading your acerbic comments! You have a very refreshing take on things!

    • Thanks, Meryl. Whatever I’ve been saying (here and elsewhere) on or about the Chinese, I’ve been saying them for years till I’m blue in the face. I grew up with people who spent their formative years before the First World War (you can now guess at my age!), so I *am* a little bit in a better position to sound off (bitch) about Chinese characteristics (stereotypes?) and/or blindspots based on what I’ve seen in two if not even three generations of Chinese people. As for my alleged refreshing take on things, I should imagine that comes from not drawing other people’s ‘cancer’ into my own game. I’m a lawyer so I appreciate the idea of ‘to fit in’ – but I’m also a biker (of the motorcycle variety) so I’m just as well able to see the need to ‘be on one’s own game,’ namsayin’?

  7. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    “Way to go!” Naked Listener, as our American friends would say! You’ve got it sussed! I’m also of mature years and one thing I feel strongly is that “face” is less important now than when I was young. Yes, we Brits can also suffer from face. But I think a certain freedom comes with maturity. Carry on Biking, Naked Listener! Good Luck to you!

  8. Junjun says:

    I love this article, because it’s real. Cheating is not only prevalent in China, but in the States as well. On a lighter note, I got a good chuckle out of reading these stories. It goes to show how desperate some students are to score well on an exam (perhaps the result of how much the Chinese value education). However, it is somewhat unnerving to see how easily the students are let off. As a diploma I.B. student (who would be automatically disqualified and kicked out of I.B. if I cheat on anything), it disgusts me. It’s clear that these students are cheating because they feel the “need” to do well on tests. This sure makes people wonder where our priorities are – the marks, or the learning?

    By the way (out of curiosity), which school in Chengdu did you teach? I was born in Chengdu, so I’m curious.

    Either way, this is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for your comment JunJun. It is a bit concerning how lightly it is treated here, the focus is much more on finishing college than learning anything while they are there.
      I don’t want to name the school in Chengdu, but it was a vocational school for students that would not be entering college.

  9. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  10. JD says:

    Here’s a few good ones on cheating.

    I cheated several times in quizzes. Especially in high school. It wasn’t even anything big. It was like checking if I had the correct spelling for a word or if I remembered a formula correct. And 90% of the time I did have them correct. But I knew it was a wrong thing to do, and I knew the teacher turned a blind eye to it. But the competition’s so fierce that every word, and everything little thing matters. I never cheated in anything major.

    Now I’m doing TA in an American school. I teach a lot of undergrad business students and, surprise, a lot of the students are Chinese. I got Chinese students checking their answers and even copying answers from one another in Lab sessions right in front of other Americans. I didn’t catch them until relatively late in the semester but I can’t even begin to think what the Americans think of me.

    Then, I got homework assignments that used the exact same words. I had to choice but to turn them in. But they were A students. It’s not like they didn’t know how to do the problems.

    At last, we had two Chinese students cheating on the midterm. Me and another teacher saw one copying from another, and then we singled out their papers. The sat next to each other so they were using different versions of the exam, but their answers to all the questions were the same. We reported them to the university.

    Sometimes in China, especially in high schools, the emphasis on grades is so great the teachers would help the students to cheat. It certainly didn’t help when the teachers didn’t do anything even if they saw students cheat. The students would have the impression that the teachers are nice and won’t report them. And grades matter so much that as long as you have a good one, everything you did is worth it. Also, a lot of unlawful deeds went unpunished in China. The students would go “maybe I’ll go lucky this time”. Or even if you did, I would make excuses and talk my way out of it. The midterm cheaters we got made 100 excuses. Or even, if you are powerful enough, you can get out of it anyway. Then, you see on TV everyday how the officials cheat, and how the Bureau of Statistics cheat.

    So we cheat, all the way from elementary school to society.

  11. bailan says:

    I wish there was a way that we could avoid the whole multiple choice, bulls&*% testing anyways. Anyone ever hear of Portfolio type grading? Group assignments and peer reviews? *sigh* I guess that’s progressive, even for America…

    • Tom says:

      I had portfolio grading in a few of my high school classes, I thought it was a fine way of grading writing assignments. Still hard to find a system that is objective and difficult to cheat on.

    • Why not just present the question on so-and-so and add in “How would your answer differ had you had to cheat?” We got that at school in my days.

  12. gregorylent says:

    so what? the students are smarter than the system, which is rote learning ^2, and understand that appearance counts far more than substance in their culture ..

    it’s the same in india .. assignments are merely make-work, spend as little time as possible on them .. degree is the only reason for school.

    kind of new to your blog .. you seem totally and unwaveringly western in outlook .. any chance of that changing ?

    i loved sitting in a family gathering in xintian, listening to the students mocking their foreign teachers .. it’s two-way, this criticism of school situations

    • Tom says:

      The point here is that these tests are creating an environment where substance doesn’t count, but for China’s economy to really become independent of foreign investment it desperately needs substance.

      Often the schools put ridiculous requirements on foreign teacher’s classes (teach exactly as described from a book full of errors), or have zero expectations from them (just be white for 50 minutes). I’ve worked at 4 different schools in China, and never received any instruction or criticism, it’s not entirely the foreign teachers fault (even though there are many with zero interest in doing anything but collecting a paycheck, but why do the schools retain them?)

      Just curious what you mean by “western in outlook”? What would changing that look like?

    • I don’t think we should be too harsh on Tom. After all, what he described was what he saw – no more, no less. Tom’s just giving China a fair shake, that’s all. Tom’s three examples above aren’t reflections of any unwavering Western outlook, I don’t think. Might be a bit of a stretch to complain about Example 1 since that sort of thing also occurs in the West. The truant in Example 2 – well, THAT might be okay if we also accept the fact that that behaviour hurts the truant himself more in the long run than the teacher’s or the school’s reputation. If the student couldn’t even give a toss about his/her ultimate performance, who is the teacher to question that? As to Example 3, I don’t quite think that kind of wayward behaviour is acceptable even to anyone of the most Oriental of outlook. No, crap behaviour is crap behaviour, whichever outlook we look upon it from.

      Let me just state for the record that the behaviour like those in the three examples exist in the West too. The same also exist in frequent measure in Hong Kong, a place not exactly unwashed in the basic tenets of Western or Chinese education. But in modern-day China, the point is that those behaviours are accentuated, mainly because of the country’s anaemic educational resources to service a huge school population, what with the authorities basically (but understandably) floundering in managing the whole education system. Lest we forget, this kind of conduct is a fairly new thing in Chinese society, in which a person’s scholastic output might not wholly meet Westernised expectations of originality, but cheating and other rogue academic conduct used to be quite badly stigmatised.

      As to Chinese students mocking their foreign teachers, yes, Western students mock their Western teachers too. We gotta be circumspect here: at least the students cared enough to mock them. C’mon, what better hat tip could a teacher want?!

      • Tom says:

        Just like to point out that the post acknowledges that this happens in the west ” many Chinese students boldly cheat, even though they lack proper cheating technique”. Like most things, China is just at a different point on a spectrum, not that they are doing something completely new.
        The post was meant to be a fun addition to a series that wasn’t so rosy.

  13. Anonymous says:

    First timer here.

    In any type of high stress, winner-takes-all environment, you will witness cheating, period. The group cheating in Duke Fuqua MBA was only a tip of the iceberg in the US. However, it was a big deal since it was rare. Should the same group-expulsion takes place in China, it would cause street protests by the students and their parents since the students’ career “would be destroyed.”

    I’ve contributed quite a bit of my spare time on Baidu About(Zhidao) to answer questions from Chinese students on how to apply for US universities. What amazed me was how everyone regarded “altering” GPA or “assisted” essay-writing normal procedures. They do feel shameful but the risk/reward was simply unproportionately favoring cheating. The downside for being caught was rejection but the upside justified any possible means.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for adding this bit from Baidu Zhidao. That does seem to be the case. Since I wrote this post I’ve had a few more experiences with people asking for help writing their college entrance papers, even a posting on an expat website to hire personal statement writers. Unfortunately, many of the students don’t realize that colleges and universities are already aware that this is happening.

  14. […] Cheating with Chinese characteristics […]

  15. 陳順 says:

    First comment here. I really hope that the parents and teachers in China can pay more attentions to the morality, not the scores the students get.

  16. wf ye says:

    Cheating is very popular in China , above all , in university.
    I am a Chinese student, i know everything.

  17. yj says:

    As a Chinese student, I have to say it’s really unwise to copy other’s work when it comes to subjective assignment like paper or speech.
    In my high school, students did cheat a lot. But sometimes I feel it can be totally justified, for a lot of homework and assignments are completely meaningless. For example, Math and Physics homework are frequently repetitive and overly tricky–all about technique, not true knowledge. It’s just not necessary to do the same question 101st time when you have already done it 100 times.
    Given that out high school program is so unnecessarily intensive, sometimes students have to cheat for survival. Unfortunately, some students just can’t distinguish when they should not cheat at all, make cheating their custom and bring it to their job in the future That’s so sad. It’s the true failure of our educational system.

  18. Richard Boyd says:

    I am a graduate student at State University of New York -Stony Brook. during my undergraduate career, I maybe witnessed one or two students cheat. Since, I have been in grad school, I have yet to have a class where I haven’t witnessed someone cheating first-hand. I got so frustrated with it that I went to far as to film two students talking during a closed-book exam. When I presented it to the graduate program director, the students response was “he’s only telling on me because I’m Chinese and he’s racist”. Needless to say, I am not a racist, but it is very hard to me to convince the director of that because the only people I have ever accused of cheating are Chinese, for exactly the same reason you mentioned in your article. They cheat BLATANTLY. they will show up to class in the last 5 minutes and furious copy another student’s homework, then turn it in as their own. When an exam has ended and everyone is trying to turn it in, they will huddle up and copy as much as they can in the 2-3 minutes they have while waiting to turn in the exam. The professors act like the idea of a graduate student cheating is unthinkable, and offer up every excuse under the sun as to why I must be mistaken. They’ll talk during in exam (in Mandarin) and IF they get caught, they just say “oh I was asking if he had a pencil” or some other bullshit excuse, then the burden of proof is on the accuser to prove what they were discussing. the rule is not talking during an exam PERIOD, not no talking about test topics.

    as for @gregorylent, it may be a very “western outlook” but they are the ones asking for western teachers or seeking a western education, so why wouldn’t we apply a “western” standard for conduct. it seems to me that Chinese students want a western education without actually earning it and I have a problem with that. It devalues the education that I have payed for, in terms of time money and effort, and It is tantamount to stealing.

    • xl says:

      Well, cheating at the graduate level is just a huge waste of time. It can quickly spiral overboard and then how will they pass their qualifying exams when they’re in a room by themselves? That said, many Chinese students who come over for graduate school are really just looking for a way to come to America. They don’t actually care about the subject they’re studying – it was likely assigned to them as undergrads in their Chinese universities. I’ve met many students whose ultimate goal is to find some way to change their student visas into work visas and then convert their PhD curriculum into a Masters degree. My father came here in the late 80s to get his PhD, and out of the dozen or so Chinese graduates in his univ at the time, only he and 2 other people are actually university professors today. The rest are still in America, but working in an assortment of other jobs (I know of one former physics PhD who ended up opening a Chinese restaurant.)
      The graduate students I’ve met recently don’t want to stay here as much – the material differences btw China & US are much smaller than during the 80s – but most still have impure intentions regarding their academic pursuits. Having studied in America is a huge resume booster in China so it doesn’t matter if they actually get their PhDs or just a Masters. Obviously, there are still quite a bit of good, true talent coming from international students, but as the US increases its acceptance rate, it’s inevitable that not all the students are coming from the top 4-5 universities but rather are coming from 2nd and 3rd tier schools. where the quality of students is remarkably lower. I really think that the US should revamp their admissions process and be more scrupulous.

      • Richard Boyd says:

        That is very interesting. My school does not segregate Masters and PhD students so there is no hard and fast rule for differentiating between them, other than just asking them. I always just assumed if someone was here on a student visa and they graduated, they either went home or got a job that would sponsor them.

  19. Anonymous says:

    May I ask why you came to China and still be there even though it seems to be an ugly country? Thx!

    • Pt says:

      You r a moron. He is just one in ur ugly country .. U send so many out of ur country who carry these cheating habits to corrupt the world

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