Foreigners Struggle to Combat Chinese Cheaters

Below is a translation of this article by Southern Weekend. The article outlines the lengths that some test takers are willing to go to for good marks, and what foreign testing institutions, like ETS, are doing to stop them.


The foreign testing institutions’ battle to combat Chinese students from cheating has been going on for years now.

In the quest to go abroad, cheaters have not hesitated to hire substitute test takers, also known as “sharpshooters”, to take tests such as the TOEFL and IELTS on their behalf. Some have even gone as far as to forge degrees, resumes, etc. Such tactics have forced foreign testing institutions to implement tedious measures and protocols. However, in spite of new measures, the “Substitute Test Taker” industry still thrives.

Students Preparing for Exam

Tongji University graduate student “Du Mou” is a sharpshooter who specializes in taking English-language tests [such as the IELTS and TOEFL]. Finding someone [like Du Mou] is as simple as running a Baidu search for “TOEFL test-taker”. Hundreds of websites on pages and pages of search-engine results belong to agencies waiting to serve.

Lin An, a student looking to take the TOEFL, hired Du Mou to take the test for him. They agreed upon a price of 20,000 RMB, which included Du Mou’s guarantee that he would produce four grade 7’s on the test. In addition to taking the test on Lin An’s behalf, Du Mou would handle all of the paperwork, including forging an identity card, which is his specialty.

IELTS requires that before test takers enter the examination site that they provide their identity card, test registration papers, and a color passport photo taken within the last six months. Exam proctors examine these credentials carefully before allowing students to take the test. Such protocol appears to be a safe approach, but Du Mou has a way around this. Using a computer, his photograph and Lin An’s, Du Mou produced a new picture which resembled both of them. This new picture was used to create the fake identify card.

Lin An expressed his worries to Du Mou about using fabricated credentials, but was reassured that the new identity card was a first generation card, and could not be detected by IELTS machines as fraudulent.

Finally, Du Mou chose to take the test in Wuhan, away from Lin An’s home province of Guangzhou. Du Mou said that the Wuhan testing site was “safer” than others. However, Lin An’s worst nightmare came true when Du Mou’s forged identity card was detected as a fake, and he was refused entry to the test site.

The failure of Lin An’s hired sharpshooter proves that IELTS and others have increased their vigilance regarding how they monitor test takers. Since the 90s when the craze to go abroad started to pick up, the battle of foreign testing institutions to combat cheating amongst Chinese students has not rested.

Originally, advertisements offering substitute test-taking services were just a psoriasis for foreign language testing institutions like TOEFL, IELTS and GRE. Now, specific details on pricing and registration procedure can easily be found on any site advertising such services. Such companies even make the services they offer sound valiant, as if you could find them in the Fortune 500: “Ten Years Of Business Producing Glorious Results”.

Example of Substitute Test Taking Website

Moreover, there is no shortage of independent sharpshooters, many of whom recruit and grow bigger by working offline. Du Mou recruits from his school, building up his stock of sharpshooters, enlisting the help of students from prestigious universities, or those serving as teachers at foreign language training schools.

Du Mou frequently visits the forums of schools such as Fudan and posts “wanted” ads in the classified section. Initially seeking students with a high English level interested in part-time translation work, Du Mou requires applicants to submit a photograph along with their resume. When he finds a client who resembles one of the recruits applying for “part-time translation work”, he persuades the recruit to become a sharpshooter.

Another aspect of the battle to combat cheating is that such fraudulent behavior taking place in China is “training” test invigilators, and making them more astute. “Originally, there were limits to how ETS imagined combating cheating, to the extent that they believed students using old tests to study from was cheating,” said a senior teacher at a foreign language training institute. ETS is the abbreviation for America’s Educational Testing Service, and is responsible for organizing GRE, TOEFL and IELTS exams across the globe. In late 2000, ETS sued a New Oriental testing site because one of its teachers, either through memorization or some other means, used ETS’ bank of old tests to create and publish a textbook.

For westerners, exams are for testing one’s ability [to apply their] knowledge and experience, and not for evaluating the polish of their test-taking technique. However, analysis of test questions is the cornerstone to every [Chinese] teacher’s class work [….]

“We’ve begun implementing new procedures and safety measures, which begin at registration and follow a student all the way through until they’ve complete the test,” said an ETS official. Such measures include plain-clothes personnel who attend exams and monitor test takers undercover. These personnel also collect and examine details and handwriting samples from individual students. ETS even takes a picture of each test taker and includes that picture alongside copies of the student’s transcripts whenever it sends transcripts to a business or other institution requesting said documentation [….]

On one internet post, a former sharpshooter outlined procedures administered by some test officials. For example, if the official notices that one’s identity card was recently issued, the official will ask for the identity card number and place of birth, and even call the prospective test-taker to see if his or her accent matches that of the registered birth place. If a test taker often visits the same site, it’s also possible that proctors will recognize him or her from a previous exam. Such details help examiners see through a sharpshooter’s game [….]

In July of 2001, the German embassy established a department to investigate those interested in traveling abroad to Germany. The department’s main responsibility includes examining the authenticity of go approach application documents. The processing fee for the initial application is 2,500 RMB, but includes the stipulation that should the documents initially submitted require further investigation, the applicant agrees to pay another fee as well as provide all diplomas, certificates and transcripts in the manner as Chen Baoya. Applicants may also need to attend a face-to-face interview.

Another Substitute Test Taking Website

Only mainland Chinese students are required to undergo such procedures.

Although some companies dealing in the go-abroad business have shared their trade secrets related to proctoring exams and combating cheating, they have refused to share statistics on what percent of Chinese students cheat. They have made it a point to proctor mainland Chinese test sites just as they would any other site, and hold them to the same international standards. However, the department of the British Consulate General affiliated with cultural education stated, “In view of the enormous scale of operations [that take place in China] and their complexity, we invest a great amount of resources in this area in order to ensure there is fairness in upholding our strict standards.”

The insincerity of some Chinese students has already become an issue for many. In 2000, ETS sent a letter to all American universities suggesting that they carefully examine all admission documents originating from the Chinese mainland relating to the GRE and TOEFL exams.

An ETS official told Southern Weekend reporters, “Chinese students are one of the world’s most gifted, hardworking and dedicated group of students. Just like most other countries, most Chinese students fairly and sincerely take part in exams [….]”

0 thoughts on “Foreigners Struggle to Combat Chinese Cheaters”

  1. I teach at a university in Shanghai and cheating is so rampant that I don’t bother with testing anymore. Memorization, testing and cheating are a monumental waste of human potential here.

    Also it’s important to note that cheating is just a part of the overall lack of respect for rules in the culture here. This is a reality on the ground level at testing centers and goes all the way up to the national development policy of “indigenous innovation” which is basically institutionalized intellectual property theft from foreign inventors. Without cultural development, economic development is doomed to stagnate which was a major reason for the failure of the Self Strengthening Movement.


  2. Well, that’s the kind of culture that brews from 1.3 billion people competing with each other. Anything goes, no holds barred. There’s a whole industry marketing James Bond-esque cheating devices now, I’m hoping it doesn’t spread to the rest of the world.


  3. Cheating’s really lame. I hate it, especially when it privileges those with cash to hire test-takers over poorer folks who have to study their way through.

    BUT, in response to Interested’s comment above: I don’t know that there’s any clear line between cheating on tests and “indigenous innovation” policies, morally or literally.

    Just about every industrializing country has played loose with the copyrights of other countries on their way up, then condemned IPR infringement when they’ve moved on to inventing their own stuff (Ha-Joon Chang writes about this). Japan did this, obviously. But so too did the U.S. and even Britain.

    Why should China do differently? Should we care about the “rights” of a Western multinational? I mean, as a practical policy or morally-speaking?

    Personally, I think too much energy has been put into IPR as an issue. Tons of Chinese law students are studying the topic when there are much more pressing issues to tackle–labor rights abuses, discrimination, etc.


  4. @Old Tales Retold: Agreed, there is a long history of up and coming nations disregarding IP laws. However, there is a systematic, calculated nature to the ongoing “indigenous” program that is incredibly cynical and I believe unique to the culture.

    @keisaat: Is it racist to be honest and call a spade a spade? Of course like any generalization there are numerous exceptions, but that alone does not invalidate the statement. The fact is, in everyday life there is a strong disregard for rules in Chinese culture.


  5. This is hardly surprising. I think in any system which relies heavily on standardized tests you will find rampant cheating. The money is too tempting: 20k RMB is close to the average Chinese yearly salary. Clearly there is a huge demand for it as some people think these tests can make or break their lives. It’s good that the testing centers are continuing to update their process to catch the cheaters.

    An Indian friend of mine who works WiPro (one of the largest IT outsourcing companies in India) told me that in India you have a similar service, but for job interviews. Basically you can hire a body double to help you get hired. Again, as long as there is a demand for a service, and if the enforcement process isn’t strict or up to date, people will take whatever advantage they can find.

    Coming from an American point of view, cheating isn’t exactly a bad thing; getting caught cheating is. Europeans may think differently though..


  6. I always thought that IELTS was organised by the British Council. Correct me if I am wrong.

    Most of this is old hat. New Oriental??? There are tons of resources/past IELTS question banks etc and Chinese websites designed to give students a leg up.

    Crikey, I know of IELTS examiners who have been high fived by students when they were thrown a question in the speaking test for which they had memorised a scripted answer. Here is how IELTS goes in China. Students do well in the reading, less so in the listening and come adrift in the speaking and writing. Basically, they have little of interest to talk about in the speaking test esp part three, and are challenged in the writing dept, due to their dependence on cliques and question repetition to get the word count.

    As for plagiarisation and cheating in college English tests. Its beyond rampant, and I had a wild time with strategies designed to f*** their heads, one involving fake test papers being left on my desk, knowing that they would be pilfered and shared.Fail too many students and the admin simply reconfigures the pass point.


  7. IELTS and TOEFL can be improved so that cheating is made more difficult, but would be the end of industrial-scale examination. More Chinese students examined = more Chinese students paying high fees in European/American schools = tests which are easier to crack.


  8. How interesting. I had no idea about this phenomenon. Is it because the Chinese students would not pass the exams on their own, or because they want a higher score to improve their college applications? TOEFL and other standardized tests are definitely a huge thing that students worry about when considering studying in the US.

    I read another interesting article recently about the lengths some Chinese families go to send their kids to good schools in the US (which I posted on my blog about studying abroad in the US: It was about how much some families are willing to pay to finance a US education.


  9. What makes this all the more depressing or pathetic is that so many of the preuniversity courses require only a 5 to gain admission. To give those who are unfamiliar with the IELTS marking rubric, it’s possible to get the topic question completely wrong and still earn a 5 average on the writing component. Many Chinese students memorize sample essays and repeatedly take the test, hoping that their practiced essay with a smattering of transitional phrases tossed about haphazardly matches up closely enough with the one that they happen to have on the testing date.
    To follow up with just how much the Chinese families are willing to spend on their children and their education abroad, it becomes apparent when one sees the wealth disparity on display. One colleague told me of a former student who was studying basic English in Louisiana, so proudly telling him of his first car, a Porsche. Astounded, he asked whether the student knew just how much car insurance would be for that brand and at his age. Without a hint of hesitation in his voice, he answered: “$25,000 a year”.
    To get back to the matter as to why this phenomenon is so entrenched in Chinese education, I would suggest that tests and by extension all schooling are regarded simply as a means to an end. Yes, there are cynical students in every society, but I have never met so many vapid, incurious students in my life as after I came to China. Chinese students do not want to attend institutes of higher learning to satisfy their desire for knowledge unless that knowledge can help them pass an exam or earn a certificate to get a job placement.
    The standard answer given by a Chinese student as to why he wants to go to university is: “To get a good job” He hasn’t thought very much about what a good job is and he therefore hardly cares about the method of getting it.Education is a means to an end; one doesn’t hear it regarded as a process nor a lifetime pursuit.


  10. “The standard answer given by a Chinese student as to why he wants to go to university is: “To get a good job” He hasn’t thought very much about what a good job is and he therefore hardly cares about the method of getting it.Education is a means to an end; one doesn’t hear it regarded as a process nor a lifetime pursuit.”

    Hey, We’re holding the Chinese to a pretty high standard if you’re gonna start picking at that little scab. To be fair, most westerners say the same thing, especially freshmen/undergraduates. It’s only later on they discover that University is not really just about money. In fact, most of the training will come ‘on-the-job’ and the University degree is almost completely unrelated to your actual employment.

    To see this up close,in a Chinese context, just listen to some of the hardcore Chinese researchers at, say, Microsoft Research, they’re not just in it for the money, they really feel like they’re contributing to the Chinese development as a whole. These guys are the heroes, I think. And good examples for students to follow.

    It’s hard to say that to someone who’s trying hard enough to rub 2 毛 together, I get it. 🙂


  11. People like Du Mou deserve to be beaten mercilessly, no doubt. Because what they are doing impacts the lives of countless people, including those who are playing fair. Students found cheating should be banned from American Universities and the ability to ever apply to one in the future. The consequences should be at least that severe because if you cheat in many Universities in America, sometimes you get kicked out, plain and simple.

    This articles annoys me because I watched my gf study like crazy, for months, for the Toefl and Gmat, while scum like Lin An pay for a good score and do nothing to actually improve himself. I have no sympathy for Lin An and am glad he got caught and wasted all that money because he does not care for all the students who actually studied and EARNED their grade. Typical selfish Chinese brat.

    My gf worked her ass off for a 790 gmat/100 Toefl. After this article, from now on, I will look at Chinese currently in America, the ones with poor English skills, with extreme suspicion and will call these assholes out from now on. Screw you people! Study hard or GTFO of America!


  12. I googled and found this article because I was thinking there was something fishy going on. I just started a masters at a US school with a large number of foreign students. They mostly speak medium to good English. There are a few who speak terrible English… and they all happen to be Chinese. European, middle Eastern, South Asian, & non-Chinese East Asian students have decent levels of English, but the ones who can’t even say their name or form a sentence are always Chinese.

    They end up sending text messages throughout lectures and never joining in study groups (at first I thought they were disrespectful/had a different understanding of respect, but then I realized that they were bored to tears because they had no idea what was going on). I don’t know why they would want to study in a country whose language they don’t speak and set themselves up for failure, but I guess their grades don’t matter so much as finishing a degree?

    Anyway, there a lots of real victims here, most importantly the foreign students who actually do speak decent English who are denied a chance to study in the US because someone else cheated. American universities and employers will be fine – these students will either drop out, or, if they manage to get a degree, be completely unemployable in the US – but think about the talent that will never have a chance because someone else cheated.


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