The case of the PHD cheat – guest post

The following is a guest post from a friend who writes on her blog

My Chinese friend turned to me the other day and said “What time is it? I got a plane to Shenzhen to catch.”

“Shenzhen? What are you doing going there on a Sunday night?”

She looked suddenly embarrassed and told me quietly that she was taking a PhD qualifying exam for someone. The first question that came to mind was why?; why this thirty-some-year-old was being flown out to Shenzhen to take a PhD exam. I have known her for two years, and she is a very kind and curious woman, but by no means a mover and shaker. Her English is pretty good, and if she had any other hidden talents, she kept them very well hidden.

“There is an English part to the exam, but it’s on a couple of different subjects. The girl I’m taking it for is overseas at grad school and can’t come back to China just for the test. My company [a study abroad facilitator who sends Chinese students overseas] helped her get into grad school, so her father asked my boss if he had any employees who could take the PhD test for her. I look the most like her, so he interviewed me then said I could do it.”

Moral quandary aside, I was a bit worried for both parties. Could she pass the test? What if she didn’t?

“He’s already paying for my flight and giving me 5000 RMB.”

Well, that’s not a little money.

She flushed in embarrassment again. “My father’s giving me a lot of pressure to make money, he says I’m underpaid and I need to step up, so whenever I can find a side gig, I take it.”

I smiled to show I wasn’t judging her. She is beyond the reasonable marriageable age (after 27 in China you’re “leftover,” not to mention 30). She worked overtime regularly to get Chinese students into schools in America, Australia, and England, but had never left the country herself.

“He also said if it goes well, his company could use an English interpreter when they go overseas. They’re going to Germany in the fall and I’d love to go.”

In America, there is a direct correlation between a student’s SAT score and his/her father’s income. It is undeniable that the top SAT scorers tend to come from environments that speak standard English, promote intellectualism and hard work, and/or have enough money to hire a tutor. So the US has its own set of systematic pulleys and levers that propel some while restraining others. For China, this system is also true, and then some. After living through a turbulent modern history, surviving famines, political crusades, and the destruction of religion, there is little platform for anti-cheating ethics. Many Chinese would not even call this a case of cheating, but rather a case of someone being well-off enough to afford a good education.

And as for my friend, I sincerely hope she does pass the test and get to go to Germany. It is hard to hold her morally accountable when, as she said, “If I don’t do it, he’ll find someone else who can.” Her saying no to the job would have caused more trouble than taking it on; her boss would have been angry, possibly lost face and business, and the possibility of strong connections and future opportunities would have been nixed. From her point of view, there is nothing to be gained by turning down the offer.

31 responses to “The case of the PHD cheat – guest post”

  1. Casey says:

    It sounds like a tough choice to make. There is still a ton of pressure on a girl of that age not to disappoint one’s parents, grandparents, and boss. Sounds like PhD and masters programs are a continuation of lower levels of school in which cheating is dismissed as commonplace: anything goes. I don’t condone this behavior in my classes or in this situation but I understand that money has a way of buying grades in China (or the US) one way or another.

    At least your friend is benefiting from it — the students who try to cheat in my class seemingly do it pro bono.

  2. alsharp1 says:

    Those last two sentences really nail it! In China, acting honestly just for the sake of it is pointless.

    No doubt there’s a lot of really nasty corruption in China, which amounts to little more than the public purse being robbed on an epic scale by the powerful. The headline stuff, like officials embezzling funds earmarked for post-earthquake reconstruction, or the a senior Party member from, say, Chongqing (!), using public funds to pay for his kid to have an elite overseas education.

    But on an everyday basis, I think most of what we would refer to as ‘corruption’ falls into this somewhat more ambiguous grey area, like the girl in the article. The people involved know that it’s wrong, essentially, but the fallout that acting honestly would cause means it’s just not worth it at all; the fact that connections are so extensive and all-pervasive means you’re going to cause all sorts of problems further down the line.

    If you’re a doctor, for instance, your parents might ask you to let a powerful friend’s daughter skip the queue for an operation. If you refuse on principle, and tell them it goes against the oath that you took, and that hundreds of others are waiting, your parents end up losing face and damaging their guanxi with the powerful friend who now hates their guts. Chances are, he’s going to drip poison in the ear of your superior ( happens to be a friend of a friend), and your parents are going to be so pissed off at your unfilial and pig-headed behaviour that you’re getting cut out of the inheritance, as well as subjected to continual ear-bashing for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, your wife is raging at you, because she was only able to marry you after persuading her parents that you were in line for that big inheritance that you’ve now lost!

    This is a slight rehash and blending of several stories I’ve been told from Chinese people, and is perhaps a bit exaggerated. But from all the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered, this kind of scenario is the reality of how practically everything – government, education, family, business, you name it – functions in China.

  3. Chip says:

    Your friend is a coward and she knows it. Key points? The embarrassment, the blushing, the need to explain WHY: “the boss already paid for it!”, “My father’s giving me lots of pressure.”, “I want to go to Germany”.

    I would normally say I hope she doesn’t have to learn the hard way this kind of behavior is wrong, but then again, she’s 30 years old, and seeing as she works with students getting to America for grad studies, she probably cheats on a pretty frequent basis. Hopefully she fails the test.

    • SB says:

      Moral courage doesn’t put food on the table in China. That having been said, there’s a reason why no one respects Chinese graduate degrees outside of China.

      • Chip says:

        I know plenty of moral people in China who seem to be doing just fine.

      • Viu Bannes says:

        Chip: Who is this person? What happened when the person faced a similar situation? What happened to him or her?

  4. ron753 says:

    Seems very sad that someone has to prostitue their own talent in this way, but who am I to critcise when corruption rears its ugly head all over the world. I think that this particular ‘dodge’ would be difficult to pull off in UK.

  5. Ndaru says:

    I can understand your friend’s dilemma. Still, I wonder what’s the point of taking a PhD, if you’re going to cheat your way anyway. I can only hope those study abroad companies don’t pull the same stunt in our uni.

  6. C. says:

    Is it me, or is China the modern posterchild for the banality of evil?

  7. Anonymous says:

    However, why did the cheater not attempt to get another doctorate abroad then? And who is to blame should her prior attempts failed? What belies this is obvious: financial problems at home. And the cause for such financial problems? Your “robbery” committed in an epic scale. None can be blamed here for the cheating in particular. People in China are anxious to get out of this country, yet prestigious institutions favors students from familes with a bureaucratic background which is then linked to the “epic-scale” robbery, even granting them full scholarship, not to mention that Chinese students had to work much harder than average to get into those institutions, all the while still having to endure oppression, both political and curricular, from CCP. I doubt those institutions ever considered this in the admission or intake process. Even those “prestigious” institutions do not have a clean hand to claim the moral high ground here.

  8. Alec O says:

    Nice post. I really enjoy these kind of articles which look at little stories of China from the ground. Adds balance to news analysis.

    As for your friend, I’m not judging her at all; she’s a subject to the system and I would probably take the money and do the test too, but I think your comparison between this kind of cheating and US SAT scores being correlated to family background is very unfair. This is outright cheating, whereas SAT scores being higher for richer students is the result of a lot of factors which are hard to change, and is not the result of cheating on anyone’s part, and can’t be easily or fairly fixed by government policies.

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  10. macroidtoe says:

    I’d say the proper thing to do would be to act as a whistleblower, but I guess whistleblowers in China end up like Chen Guangcheng. I guess what seems strange to me is that there appears to be no concept of dishonesty itself incurring a loss of face. If anything, it seems more like dishonesty is considered a tool for maintaining (false and undeserved) face.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Have you read Yaxue’s brilliant Post entitled Dumb Americans? 老外没有信眼。

      • macroidtoe says:

        Indeed I have, and that’s when the question first began to form in my mind: Why do people think that lying saves face rather than causes them to lose face? I don’t even mean in situations where I find out later: most of the time, I know the lie is a lie as it’s being said! (I’m surprised the government hasn’t stepped in to stop people from “damaging the image of China.” 😀 )

        Maybe the problem is that a related concept is missing from the puzzle: that admitting a mistake and correcting it REDEEMS the loss of face. I kind of get the feeling that admitting a mistake in China, rather than being seen as an honorable attempt to right the wrong, instead is seen as giving permission for everyone to beat up on you. (“Self-criticism”?)

  11. Lao Why? says:

    I will always remember an interview with a woman seeking a job position from our company. Her resume was impressive having obtained a PHD in economics about 4 years prior. I don’t recall if the PHD was from a Chinese University or an English University. I asked her what field of economics. She said real estate. I asked her if she did a dissertation thesis. She said yes. I asked her to tell me about it. She could not remember even the basics of the paper. It was not an issue of nervousness. She clearly had no idea what her thesis was. While I suppose she could have lied in answering my question about whether she did a thesis, I suspect she bought an online paper. Or she did not have a PHD at all.

  12. Nicole says:

    Wow, this rings so true in so many ways… I’m an international student here in Tsinghua and have given up on the amount of cheating that goes on in the classroom from my Chinese classmates. This helps fill in some blanks on my musings as to whether its isolated to Tsinghua. Guess not. Musings link on cheating Chinese students, in case anyone is interested

    • Anonymous says:

      Cheating is essential for students who prefer to skip over certain courses to stay away from CCP indoctrination. If you do want to blame them for cheating, blame them for cheating over specific courses othan than those “political” ones.

      • Lao Why? says:

        That is absolute nonsense. Don’t insult our intelligence.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Insult your intelligence? Then tell us how you managed to pass courses like Moral, Ethics, and Fundamentals of Law and Marixism-Leninism, and preferrably Mao Tsedong Thought? How could you pass those courses without cheating?

    • Chip says:

      I’ll admit to a finding it somewhat humorous when a Chinese student had a nervous breakdown after being kicked out of their major when they were caught cheating during my undergrad.

    • Lao Why? says:

      Ok so you are asking us to believe that Chinese students confine themselves to selectively cheating on Marxist propaganda curricula out of purity of heart and an effort to maintain a rational, unbiased approach to learning. Your implication is that they would, therefore, not cheat on other coursework.

      While i share your dislike for the heavy handed onslaught of Party poison, i don’t believe that your representation of virtuous students who, once relieved of the chains of Communist intellectual oppression, pursue learning in an honest and straightforward manner, applies to all students. I studied Marxism in school and consistently rejected the marxist analysis. But it did not stop me from learning the arguments and i did not feel the need to cheat to get through the classes.

      I would agree if you took the position that there are many students who do honest studies and try very hard to do the right thing. We, therefore should not paint them all with the same brush.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “Ok so you are asking us to believe that Chinese students confine themselves to selectively cheating on Marxist propaganda curricula out of purity of heart and an effort to maintain a rational, unbiased approach to learning.”
    I did not ask, and what I did was point out an very obvious exception, which the author and his witness ignored in the narrative on the Tsinghua experience.

  15. Anonymous says:

    All right. This is lengthy, and I will sum it up.
    “i don’t believe that your representation of virtuous students who, once relieved of the chains of Communist intellectual oppression, pursue learning in an honest and straightforward manner, applies to all students.”
    First, I did not claim to make a “representation of virtuous student” here. I am asking you folks to rip through a myth to see the reality. If somehow you, unfortunately, believe that I did. Point it out.
    Second, learning environment matters. And it encompasses social, cultural, religious, and politcal environment. It is of course safe and sound to study Marxism in a democracy without interference from a communist regime. However, let me remind you of some facts: almost all public servants in PRC are CCP members and they are pushing CCP membership even in corporations ( vide ). And are you even aware of the number of college graduates who partook in the “public servant examination”? Joining CCP is inevitable for those people yearning for a carefree life in Serica as a public servant. So, what’s the immediate answer for a better life in the perspective of Chinese college student? Pass the exam and become a public servant. What about the ideology that people no longer believe in yet still appears in party propaganda? Cheat and fake it! There are even professionals who specializes in impersonating their clients in such exams, a major objective of which is a test of loyalty to the CCP. Hence, the logic has become clear. The officials want to cover up their corruption with an already faded ideology and save face. The professors want to have a job and feed their family yet they still have conscience. The students want a carefree job, which requires them to lie. And here comes the cycle of doom: people lie and they lie to survive.
    “if you took the position that there are many students who do honest studies and try very hard to do the right thing.”
    No, there are not many. Some of my friends who attended graduate schools outside Serica told me those courses like Mao Tsetong Thoughts are taken as “philosophy” courses, plus this is taken into account of GPA calculation, and the rest is left to your imagination. Also note that these propaganda courses can take up 10%~20% of the total credit hours earned by a Chinese college student in his or her undergraduate years, and the rest if left to your imagination. There are NOT many. People need to survive before they can be honest? Trying “very hard” to the right thing? That could be some brain-rot princelings, who are courageous and powerful enough to rebel against themselves, by which I pose the question to you: do even you yourself believe this?
    If you want to ask me if there is ONE people in Serica that does NOT possess within himself or herself the tendency to LIE, I would say, he or she only exists in ages past or in fairy tales. CCP ruined this country, physically, culturally, politically, and whatever term that comes up in your mind, yet even now institutions that are supposed to be the beacon of (from the Chinese perspective) western democracy, such as Harvard, are opening arms to the offsprings of oppressors, princelings, say, in Serica for the sake of the tuition their parents could pay.
    Cheating is, and will always exist in Serica, and among the characteristics of the Chinese people. As a result, you cannot blame them for cheating in general. You can only blame them for cheating on specific matters. And that is what the thesis which I value most.
    Do NOT assume for yourselves a life similar to that of yours for people currently living in Serica.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      What is Serica?

      • Anonymous says:

        Serica is a euphemism for a country known in Latin as Sina, or its ancient name in Greek transliterated, lest the original term appears too frequently in the text and incurs censorship.

  16. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:


  17. Potomacker says:

    Am I the only reader who sees her actions as selfish and business oriented? By offering to cheat on an entrance exam for a mainland Chinese PhD program and being so willing to be compensated for her complicity, she insures that the value of mainland Chinese schools remains suspect and the credentials worthless. Is her job not helping Chinese students gain admission to western schools where this level of fraud is intolerable?

  18. Potomacker says:

    And to keep the record clear, in Latin China, or an approximation of what we call China today, is Sinae.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Is it not that the mainland Ph.D programs is already reputed to be tainted, given that additional forms and filing are required for an mainland applicant for German universities? This entire system of mainland education is tainted, already tainted, and is there anything wrong for somebody to profit from an already tainted system? Can you find her a better job?

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