China Central Television exposed an education scandal and Chinese education officials are scurrying to investigate. It started with a phrase that appeared written inside the bathroom stalls at some high schools in China’s central Henan Province. Essentially, the message read: “To have a good test-taker take the gao kao test for you, call [phone number]”. The gao kao is the life-determining test given at the end of high school the second weekend of June. For students at the bottom of their class, this offer to have a “ghostwriter” take your test may be your only chance to get into college and maybe get a desk job.
But Chinese education authorities already have stringent safeguards in place to ensure the identity of test takers. The residence card or “hukuo” determines where a student can take the test. The government-issued universal identity card includes a photograph. And all Chinese students have fingerprint records on file; fingerprints are taken and compared as students enter the testing hall. Henan Province officials had already pulled scores on 127 students where fingerprints did not match.
This was in addition to electronic wanding of students as they entered, total video surveillance of the test takers, closing off roads around the school, and continuous radio scanning to detect use of any electronic communication devices. So how could cheaters succeed?
It was on the evening news. All of the channels were abuzz with the CCTV investigative reporting. A student had notified the channel of the note scribbled in the bathroom stalls. Reporters took photographs. The station then sent its own fake students—young-looking reporters—as potential customers for the cheating service. They wore tiny cameras that recorded all of the arrangements. For a steep fee, the ”ghostwriter”service would send in bright young-looking college students who superficially resembled the student. And there on camera, you could see how the surrogates used peel-off fingerprints from the actual student to fool the fingerprint scanner! It was straight out of the latest spy novels, and it worked!
Following this exposé on the TV news, education officials and the public security bureau rapidly followed up. As I boarded my plane to return to the United States, the Air China hostess politely handed me a copy of the June 20 China Daily. They reported that twenty-three suspects had been detained, including students, parents, surrogate imposters, and teachers who had in some instances bribed exam monitors. More arrests were anticipated in Henan’s Tongxu and Qixian counties, and in the historical city of Kaifeng.
"Once confirmed, those students will have a score of zero for the exam," reported an education officer. Another education official in Zhengzhou stated that obviously the fingerprint system was not foolproof "...which means the supervision measure is not efficient."
Testing in Imperial China goes back 2000 years and cheating was a capital crime—for both the student and the test supervisor! No one will be executed today. But this is one of the most serious crimes that can be committed in China. This episode was also a case that showed the expanding role of the press in investigative reporting. Such reporting was also made easier and more respected under this last year of crackdown on corruption by China’s President Xi Jinping. At many levels of activity, it has been obvious this last year that there is far more care being taken to document expenditures. And there are far more cases of officials being punished for misbehavior, mismanagement and corruption.
This episode in China is no greater than the recent American cases where U.S. teachers cheated by changing test scores under pressure to making adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind.
But next June, I suspect that there will be education and security officers inspecting the walls of school bathroom stalls across China.