"Conundrum": 90 Percent of China's Applicants Cheat

11/07/2011 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012
  • Michael Levy Author, 'Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China's Other Billion'

Chinese students are coming to American colleges in record numbers. A recent New York Times analysis of this phenomenon makes it clear that nearly all of these students cheat to gain admission. As evidence, the Times quotes a report concluding that "90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive." The report predicts this will only get worse going forward. The Times calls this a "conundrum."

One thing it is not is a revelation; in fact, any American with experience in China's school system will read this article and shrug. For years, American college admissions officers have seemed to be saying: "Chinese cheat. It's just the way they are, and accepting this is part of the cost of doing business in China."

In other words, gaining a student who can pay full admission is the goal; gaining someone honest is not.

I wouldn't call this a "conundrum." I'd call it a a disgrace, and one that I viewed first hand. From 2005-2007, I was an English teacher at Guizhou University, the flagship school of China's poorest province. When I assigned papers, they would often be cribbed from the internet (and when I say often, I mean 75 percent of the work submitted contained some form of plagiarism, and about 10 percent was entirely cut-and-pasted from the web). In the most depressing incident I witnessed, a fellow teacher refused to turn one of her students in for using a cheat-sheet during an important test. "It's none of my business if someone cheats," my colleague told me. "And this student has influential parents. It would be foolish to report this."

I chalked a lot of this up to "cultural difference." One of the Deans at my college told me that "Chinese collaborate on work, while Westerners keep it all to themselves. This is because of our belief in socialism." Another told me that those raised in a Confucian culture believe that before you can be an expert, you must spend decades copying previous masters; it is arrogant for a teenager to try to produce something unique, and copying is simply humility and flattery. A student of mine put things more bluntly: "In America, people get into college because their parents are alumni, or because the college knows their family is rich. How is this not cheating? We in China are simply trying to level the playing field with our own versions of this sort of thing."

At times I debated with my colleagues, rejecting what I saw as flimsy rationalizations. At times I punished my students for what I defined as cheating. And of course, I also met plenty of students who were honest. My general policy while in China was to follow Ice T's sage advice: don't hate the player; hate the game.

The game. That's what a school system becomes when money talks, when students are viewed as commodities, and when standardized test scores are reified. I hate what the admissions game does to the students at Saint Ann's, here in Brooklyn, where I teach 4th, 10th, and 12th grade History. I hate that the game under funds some schools to the point that they have to chase admissions dollars from those they know are cheating. I hate that the game encourages this cheating by elevating money and numbers above people and talent.

But this is a game we've invented. The Chinese are just playing it better than everyone else.