Chinese Who Cheat Versus Cheaters Who Happen to be Chinese

06/05/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

There are so many reports of Chinese students cheating, either before they have arrived (for example, through identity fraud on standardized tests) or after they have enrolled. As a Chinese American higher education administrator, I feel compelled to comment on the phenomenon. I am of two minds.

On the one hand, I am appalled by what appears to be a pattern or at least a prevalence. I do not doubt that there is a real problem.

I would not hesitate to follow our norms in imposing discipline if we found that a Chinese student had violated the rules. But I wouldn't vacillate as to culprits of any other background either. I would restrain myself, or others would ensure I was circumspect, to avoid making an example of a Chinese youngster through improper suspicion or an excessive punishment.

On the other hand, I remain apprehensive about racial stereotyping. I would pause to make certain we followed our processes and determined whether allegations were true in any particular case. I am acquainted with the images imposed on anyone of Chinese ancestry, since some critics would not distinguish Chinese Americans however assimilated as distinct from Chinese foreign nationals. The fear of Chinese cheating on papers and exams is not unrelated to the threat of Chinese engaged in industrial espionage or military hacking, and even Chinese tourists who don't bother to line up; they belong to the lineage of the inscrutable hordes that form the theme of Yellow Peril.

There is a risk of targeting individuals because of concerns about a group. Some colleagues of mine are convinced that cheating is rampant more generally: Harvard and University of Virginia, not to mention Dartmouth College in an ethics class no less, have been among the affected institutions. It might not be quite appropriate to apply the same standards to people who have come from societies with a competitiveness we (myself included) cannot even imagine, in which any person who wishes to succeed must compete against literally millions with the appreciation that failure means life ruin. Because there are enough instances of corruption even by what are expressed as Chinese conventions, it is easy to forget that there also are traditions of copying one's elders out of respect rather than dishonesty -- as has similarly been true at different times in Western art.

Being fair and just requires balancing these factors. Chinese students deserve the benefit of the doubt, neither more nor less than other students. But once they have been found guilty, they should be treated like any other transgressors. While they can be expected to adapt to American policies during their time here, we would do well to become familiar with their customs and values. That is simply in our own interest, not to suggest it serves as another's excuse. These are the complexities of our era.

I am not aware of strong evidence demonstrating the relative rates of Chinese who cheat versus cheaters who happen to be Chinese. I have found it fascinating, however, that among those with whom I have discussed the matter are persons ignorant of Chinese and not mindful of civil rights as well as those of Chinese descent and otherwise immersed in Chinese culture, who are willing to agree that mainland Chinese in particular might display a propensity toward this conduct, and other persons who are well-educated but not especially familiar with Chinese who are more accepting of the proposition that fraud has overwhelmed us. No matter who we are, or how we trace our origins, the stakes of academic achievement have become higher than we have been prepared for.

Perhaps the best means of addressing these issues, as is true of most issues, is through education. We must do more to teach ourselves about learning in a global context if we wish for our students to succeed. In an era of effortless technological enhancement of one's own work (such as by "Rogeting"), plagiarism and other wrongs are not limited to the Chinese whom we welcome to our shores. An honor code, if it is to be more than observed in the breach, should belong to those whom it governs.