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The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and how it shapes corruption in China

I recently finished Dan Ariely’s book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way Global Times tried, I do think we are overlooking a few key points.

For one, as Ariely argues, cases of embezzlement and fraud are not made up largely of Madoff’s (or Liu Zhijun’s), but of small daily acts by very ordinary people. He shows through his research that for the most part everyone is willing to cheat a little, and that massive cheats are actually far more rare than they should be (if one assumes that a person would cheat as much as is possible without repercussions), and that we should be much more concerned about the tens of millions of officials that go unnoticed.

The way Ariely and his fellow researchers tested their theories was with a basic math quiz, which allowed participants to lie about their score. They were then paid according to the score they reported to gauge how great of an effect variables had on people’s willingness to cheat. Surprisingly, people were unwilling to claim that they had solved all the questions correctly, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, Ariely reasons, cheating is something that needs to be rationalized by the individual so that they can continue to see themselves as a decent person. The massive scams typically involve people who are very good at rationalizing what they are doing. This may explain some officials’ rather unbelievable claims about their “legal income” that seems completely beyond what they are earning on paper. Corrupt officials have likely convinced themselves that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Ariely’s research seems to suggest that something as simple as a pledge at the start of a work day or document could curb some abuse, as it would remind the individuals that these small acts are unacceptable.

There were also several factors that caused an increase in cheating that seemed to correlate to China’s officials. One is that removing physical cash from the equation greatly increased people’s dishonesty. If the award is something like a banquet, a wedding gift for a child, or perhaps a nice box of tea it would be easier to accept without guilt than cash. This means that the periodic gov’t crackdowns on gift cards may actually be more useful than they might have seemed at the outset. Another factor is something as simple as wearing knockoffs, which Dan argues results in the individual viewing themselves as more dishonest, causes people to cheat more to fit this new self-image. I would imagine there would be a similar effect on individuals who wear watches that were “gifted” in a dishonest fashion.

The biggest influence on dishonesty though is a demonstration of someone else cheating without punishment, which most officials likely get a glimpse of in their first gov’t position. I say this based on what I have seen within the schools that I’ve worked in, and the public hospital where administrators wined and dined without rebuke.

However, Ariely did discover that virtually every country’s culture is similarly corrupt, even though people often feel that their culture is especially corrupt (China was included in these tests, and the Chinese researcher was surprised to find there was no difference).  He did believe though that certain professions foster a culture that are more corrupt than others, with gov’t officials being among some of the top offenders (regardless of country).

So then, what lessons can we draw from this book about China? For one, the absolute most effective way of curbing cheating was to be supervised by a a third-party who had zero contact with the individual prior to or during the experiment. However, when the third-party was given time to get familiar with the individual, normal levels of cheating returned, and even slightly increased. This would seem to imply that China’s current system of corruption monitoring is faulty by design. Monitors should not be Party members, they should be frequently reassigned to limit fraternization, and should be closely monitored themselves (perhaps by an unrestrained media, or the citizenry). It would also abandon the idea that harshly punishing a few individuals would be enough to send a message to the rest.

We should also bear in mind that the daily, seemingly minor abuses, are likely more costly than the scandals that are too large to cover up. In a country with tens of millions of gov’t employees, if each employee enjoyed 100rmb in banquets per year (which is an insanely conservative figure), the cost to the citizens would be over a billion yuan (more than Liu Zhijun is said to have embezzled). To reach the level of monitoring that would be required to effectively crackdown on this kind of corruption, the gov’t would have to open their books to the public, which they are loathe to do.

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.

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