This post was written by Matthew Dresden. Matthew handles China matters out of our U.S. office and this is his first post for the blog. Matthew speaks and reads Mandarin and has lived in both Beijing and in Shanghai (but is too politic to tell us which he prefers).

Here’s Matthew’s post:

There has been a spate of recent stories in the media about the large numbers of Chinese students applying to U.S. colleges who have doctored their records. A paragraph from an article in the New York Times neatly sums up the issue:

Colleges, eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal, have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at Chinese universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on American campuses. College officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English proficiency score that doesn’t jibe with a student’s speaking ability. American colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.

What’s fascinating is how Americans who never deal with China are shocked by the extent of the cheating: more than 90 percent of applications contain some kind of fabrication, according to education consultancy Zinch China. Meanwhile, Americans who regularly do business with China simply say that the other 10 percent are merely the ones who haven’t been caught.

How is this relevant to your business?

If you’re starting a business relationship in China, you should assume that 90 percent of what your Chinese counter-party tells you is false. This is not to say that 90 percent of people in China are liars, or even that 90 percent of what your Chinese counter-party tells you is actually false, but rather that you should proceed as if that is the case. It’s a simple matter of incentives. There is an extremely high probability that your Chinese partner will try to cheat you, because the chance they will get caught before you pay them is small, and even when you do find out, the chance you can do anything about it (legally or otherwise) is even smaller.

This is why we stress repeatedly on this blog that if you do business in China, you need a contract written in Chinese that is enforceable in a Chinese court. Ask yourself this: how many American companies would cheat, if there was a really, really good chance they could get away with it? A lot more than most of us might like to admit. Americans commonly use the Wild West as a metaphor for modern China; we might also do well to remember how many hucksters, swindlers, charlatans, and mountebanks roamed the American West.

The director of the international division of Beijing’s high-profile Peking University High School writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how U.S. colleges should interview Chinese high school students to accurately gauge their abilities:

[The interview] ought to be focused, detailed, and deliberate. Here are some examples of good interview questions that look for empathy, imagination, and resilience:

Pick a novel or a movie, and discuss the characters. Which character did you identify with? Why? Which part of the book or movie made you sad? Made you angry? Why? What experiences have you had that remind you of events in the book or movie?

Pick a memorable experience, and explain why it was so memorable. Tell the story. Explain your feelings during the experience. Why did you have these feelings? Do you know anyone either real or fictional who has had a similar experience? Did they behave the same as you did? Do you think their feelings were the same as yours?

When was the last time you were angry or sad?

What made you angry or sad? How did you get over your anger or sadness? What do you think will happen the next time you encounter the same situation?

Persist in asking “why?” Look for sincerity, for logic, and for clarity of thought.

What Jiang describes is due diligence, pure and simple and tailored to the specific situation, just as it should be. And it is precisely what many American universities have not done. As a recent report on American Public Media’s Marketplace made clear, many American universities, desperate for students who will pay full tuition, have been contracting with Chinese placement agencies to deliver students. If a student gets admitted to an American school, the placement agencies get paid the equivalent of $6,000, usually by the students’ parents; the American universities pocket the hefty tuition. Needless to say, the American universities have been shocked – shocked! – to discover that the Chinese agencies were falsifying students’ applications on a massive scale.

Employers ought to be similarly skeptical when hiring employees from China. Don’t take resumes or transcripts for granted; check references and confirm employment histories. This means contacting schools and employers in China. Most of all, it means conducting a meaningful interview.

Let’s be clear: the truth about cheating in China is considerably more complex than anything captured by a single statistic. Some bloggers (either more cynical or more realistic, depending on your perspective) take these stories as an example that “lying” simply doesn’t mean the same thing in China as it does in America, or that Chinese are amoral and have no common values. I like sweeping generalizations as much as the next guy, but this seems a bit harsh, to say the least. My personal view is that these stories have less to do with China and more to do with human nature. When the rewards are high and the consequences of getting caught are minimal, people will cheat. Heck, people will cheat even when the risks are high, as evidenced by recent front-page stories about cheating right here in America, both by students and by schools.

The admissions departments of American universities are learning a lesson that businesses dealing with China have already learned the hard way – or will soon enough. If a deal (or a person) sounds too good to be true, it (or he or she) probably is.

  • Calvin

    Being in university and having international friends here who came from Asia, I can personally attest to the widespread use of “application agents” who write entrance essays and fabricate extracurricular work/experience for Asian international students, not just in China but in places like Singapore as well. In my experience the number is not as high as 90%, but everyone is definitely aware of it.
    I have heard arguments that everyone plays up their status and experience in resumes and applications and even in normal social conversation, but you really have to draw the line when you’re hiring and paying an agency to do it for you. It is pretty disgusting (though not unexpected) that the practice exists at all, and it does need to get fixed ASAP. But how? There is too big of a logistical difficulty in conducting an in person or phone interview for universities (though businesses really no excuse), so what solution is there if a live interview is impossible?

    • Ron

      I think what’s being missed here is that the Han Chinese have an agenda to take over the planet. That’s what is behind this. Cheating is perfect in love and war and this to them is war, nothing else. No more Ang Mo.

  • MHB

    There are different degrees of ‘cheating’ on university applications. Falsifying test scores is one thing, paying someone else to write your application is another.
    Businessmen could write contracts themselves – read the law, understand the law, and then do everything themselves. But there is a big risk of it going wrong. Even talented students will want to pay an agency to draft their applications for them. There is less risk that way, and if you have the money to pay, why do you want to waste your time writing some nonsense to satisfy a bureaucrat you will never meet?
    If your test scores are not good enough, it’s easy to find reasons to justify why they should have been better. If your test scores should have been better, they are not a good reflection of your ability. You would be deceiving the university if you didn’t fake your test scores.
    I think what inspires the ‘China is a nation of liars’ comments that you mention is that when a Chinese lies or cheats, he steadfastly believes that it is not lying or cheating – and will argue you into the ground, often with ‘why shouldn’t I do this?!’ rhetoric. But he would probably call out ‘cheat’ if anyone else tried to trick him in the same way!

  • anon this time

    Kudos to the Chinese who are being pragmatic and mercenary about a biz – big US college education – that sees them (and all students, really) solely as sources of revenue. What a joke! The price of a college education rises yearly all across the nation while students accumulate more and more debt trying to get degrees that have less and less promise of securing them decent, sustainable work.
    The noble and lofty ideals behind “education” have very, very little to do with it. Colleges churn out paint-by-numbers MBA programs, online degrees, and lucrative overseas campuses and “partnerships” to further what cause? I have been teaching English as a Second Language for nearly ten years now, and I am amazed by how much of the education system here in the U.S. is now baldly focused on big revenue test prep and the fear and anxiety it causes. The TOEFL test – the test of English proficiency required by most American universities – is probably the single most lucrative test prep service behind SAT and ACT prep services.
    It is not fair to single out the Chinese. I live in Miami, where wealthy students – mostly from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and (recently) Russia – are involved in the same game of trying to find some way, any way, into US universities. If it weren’t the Chinese, there still would be South Korea or Russia. China stands out because of the sheer number of students they have, not due to anything intrinsically “Chinese” about exam cheating and coaching. Anyone who thinks that many college entrance essays aren’t heavily coached or written by others ANYWHERE is a fool.
    The idea that US universities require diversity is equally absurd. Well, it’s absurd unless one considers different kinds of very wealthy teenagers as true diversity. Chinese students who move to the U.S. in their teens to finish high school can enroll at US universities without taking the TOEFL. Do we really want to penalize students who don’t have enough money to come here while they are in grade school or high school, but have to wait until after high school? Or whose parents couldn’t play the US visa game well enough to beat the system before their kids finished high school?
    Ha! Does anyone suppose having someone write your essay for you is substantially different than having someone coax and cajole you into writing one of the “template” essays that most college admissions officers see?
    *extra curricular activities? check!
    *volunteer work? check!
    *desire for personal growth and enrichment? check!
    *promise of a big check? check!!!
    I cannot stand the way we so uncritically get out the knee-pads and incense for ridiculous institutions like US higher education, but hold the Chinese (well all foreigners really) to such ridiculous standards while we ourselves wallow in it.
    Does your “disgust” extend to being willing to pay higher tuition if all the cheating foreign students left and took their checkbooks with them? You don’t expect college administrations to just eat this cost and not pass it along to students, do you? How do entrance exam essay writing/coaching agencies differ so much from what US college prep agencies like Kaplan, Huntington, etc offer? Do you believe that colleges are really helpless in the face of this cheating onslaught, and can do nothing to prevent having to cash all these big checks floating in from abroad? I am sorry but to pin it all on a “logistical difficulty” suggests to me that you need to give the situation a much harder look.

  • You miss one major point in your article Matthew. As you know, in a Chinese court of law there is no jury.
    There is only the judge who decides. If you have a contract written in Chinese that is all well and good… but it’s equally fairly useless.
    Any Chinese business man facing the unlikely event of court action from a U.S citizen will simply calculate the potential loss and then give half of that possible loss to the judge. This is considered good business sense in China. The Chinese lawyer involved will simply act as the intermediary in the transaction.
    As many Chinese lawyers have told me, that is the main point of a Chinese lawyers job. Actual litigation skill is secondary at best, and more likely, pointless.

  • Calvin

    @anon at this time
    I have the perspective of a student, so obviously I will be biased. With that said, I believe the rising price of University education is due to the demand for post-secondary education being so high across the world right now that even basic economics could explain the corresponding rise in price. It is entirely unreasonable to expect universities to “take the moral high ground” and accept student as if the educations system was a pure meritocracy, yet that is the ideal. What “cost” are the universities going to eat if they successfully screen out cheating applicants? You have to remember that there are a very limited number of spots available compared to the number of people wanting to get into university, a hundredfold so when you are talking ivy league. Each cheating and unworthy student who gets in is a slight to 100 other people who were rejected.I am not saying that colleges are helpless, but I am saying that they should be taking steps to address the issue.
    Also, as I am aware of it the agencies also falsify your extracurricular/community service portions, and in certain cases your grades as well (most commonly the English language proficiency). That i feel like is much more egregious than a simple fake essay.

  • Justin

    Do not easily believe in what you have been told. You should see something through your own eyes.

  • William

    Another facet of the problem is the pride, ignorance and anxiety of Chinese parents, who are, after all, the ones funding this whole scheme. They are too focused on getting the right outcome (admission to a good US college) to care about the means by which the agents achieve it, or whether it’s the right choice for their child.
    I met with Chinese overseas education agencies in a previous job, and all the larger ones were solely concerned with how they would get paid in any proposed cooperative enterprise. Some of the smaller ones seemed more interested in the children’s education and welfare, but they still needed to make a living.

  • MHB

    Calvin – the same influx of foreign and Chinese students occurs in the UK where universities are not profit making institutions. Places are limited, but the more foreign money coming the more local students can attend. Chinese students subsidise local places. Even at profit making institutions, this will apply to a large extent.
    You have a belief in the meritocracy of education – that someone must be worthy of a place. You believe your studies are worth more than the certificate. These ideals are magnificent, but do not easily fit into mass education. Wherever you are from, anon this time is right – money jumps you up the educational ladder.

  • Max

    Honesty is a cultural trait, and like all cultural traits it is emphasized and valued to different degrees in different cultures. There is more dishonesty in China than in most Western countries. (However, that is not to say that individual Chinese cannot be very honest). Perhaps the reason for this is that there is too much pressure on Chinese students from their tiger mothers to succeed.

  • Volker Müller

    do you have any proof or any statistics that supports your statement?
    beeing a general manager of the subsidiary of a “western” company in China and working at the “interface” between China and “the West” for almost 2.5 decades, my personal impression is that there is more dishonesty in “the West” than in China.
    Most Chinese BELIEVE, that there is less dishonesty in China, similar like many Chinese blindly believe in the superiority of quality of “Western” products … but reality is a different story.

  • anon this time

    I am not sure that the price of a university education at a state school should be exactly linked to “rising demand”. Think about one aspect of that idea: if you establish tuition based on demand, wouldn’t it follow that you’d have to stagger the tuition, making the more in-demand majors pricier than others? Engineering majors at Purdue and Georgia Tech would be paying substantially more than what theater or education majors would.
    Of course private schools may price their tuition however they want. But do you believe that land grant universities – heavily subsidized by state taxes – should be in the business of turning a profit? State university tuition isn’t determined by the same criteria as the price of an iPod.
    Yes, there are limited spots at universities. But the universities themselves determine how many slots go to which group of students. Doesn’t it seem that universities have already made a choice? Demand a perhaps unreachable level of “integrity” from foreign students and miss out on those wire transfers. Or, complain, moan, and cash the check anyway. I really love the university administrators who are so outraged about this, year after year after year… they really remind me of what Sherman in The Bonfire of the Vanities said about his coworker Rawlie: cynical about the industry, but still managed to muster the strength to cash his checks.
    Oh, and if it’s any comfort, the level of cheating domestically is widely believed to be approaching that of the deep-pocketed foreign students. The NYT, Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington Post, they all run variations of this article about domestic students every couple of years.

  • Stephan

    The problem of doctored university applications is why the Germans set up the “Academic Evaluation Centre” in Beijing (see To my knowledge, China is the only country in which this rather expensive and time-consuming process has been established for screening university applicants. I think this speaks volumes about the seriousness of the problem.

  • Great post by Matthew Dresden.
    Point is with the size and scope of false applications to overseas universities by chinese students, sooner or later something’s got to give. The smart institutions will be the ones that try to address the issue before the certificates they hand out like confetti are rendered meaningless (and with them, the institution).
    @Volker Müller
    Apologies in advance if I’m wrong (and you’ll deny it if I’m not), but your Germanic moniker is inconsistent with the knee-jerk ‘defend the Motherland’ nature of your anecdotal evidence.

  • There’s so much unethical behaviour in all our countries and cultures that arguing over who is slightly less unethical and immoral than whom is pretty pointless, imo.
    You wrote: “that “lying” simply doesn’t mean the same thing in China as it does in America, or that Chinese are amoral and have no common values. I like sweeping generalizations as much as the next guy, but this seems a bit harsh, to say the least. My personal view is that these stories have less to do with China and more to do with human nature.”
    I basically agree about it boiling down to human nature, but I don’t think it makes sense to separate out “human nature” and “China” in the way you have in this situation. What we witness as “unethical behaviour with Chinese characteristics” is what happens when you put human beings in the historical/cultural/economic contexts of China. That context is significantly different from the contexts that most native English speakers come from, and that results in notably different sets of acceptable behaviour. So I think it has everything to do with both China and human nature.

  • There are arguments to be made in both defense of Chinese culture and defense of Western or American cultures.
    The first thing you have to do is define: cheat, lie, etc. After that you can begin to explain or compare the two culture.
    With regards to the application, I personally would not lie, however with regards to an above poster what if I had a bad day but I knew I could do better. Would I be better off lying and writing done something that I honestly knew I could achieve? I’m not sure. The competition is fierce here in China. In my hometown it was no where near this intense, so I don’t feel the pressure to lie on an application. But I feel that everywhere in the world no matter where we are, we are compelled to boast a little bit.
    However I feel that in China you have to boast a bit more. The ante is upped so to speak. So when person who has been culturally defined and has been in tune with the average boasting in China, when they go to America and then have to complete tasks that they would also have to complete in China, they resort to what they know, and what they know is their standard. Which may or may not be untruthful. That’s just the way it is. Is it unfair to domestic students, maybe, but I would reckon that the percentage compared to domestic students is quite small. If not insignificant. This is pretty much what @Max is saying. It’s in Chinese culture. Are there stats, probably not. I mean come on, are there stats how how much people lie? It’s a pretty subjective thing. You think I am lying but I can justify it.. Etc..
    I agree with MBH in a way. If we were all being honest then everything I do must be done by myself. My negotiating, etc.. All me. But that’s not the way business is done. We hire lawyers and translators to help us. So why not someone to take our thoughts, dreams, etc, and help us write an application essay? Again you can justify this one way or another.
    I find that people are usually upset when it doesn’t help them. If there were less Chinese, or another ethnic group that were getting accepted into college at the same rate, were doing the same thing we would be arguing how the bluntness of that culture, or some other aspect was helping them in some way. I’ve found that I personally am a too nice of a person to succeed in the business world. I’ve had to adapt. I’ll be honest and say that it usually means I have to lie more. I have to put a better face on, a face that makes the recipient perceive me in a better light, even though I was raised to be an honest hard working person. To survive in the city, the business world, I needed to adapt. To survive in China I’ve had to really adapt and show an extra good face, per say.
    Maybe I only have an associates degree, or a sub education. I hang out with people that have undergraduates, and masters degrees. If I can hang with them and there is no noticeable difference then if I say that I have an undergraduate degree myself is that bad? If I don’t and that inhibits me from providing for my family then should I tell the truth and lose the opportunity to send my child to college or pay for the next meal? Hell yeah I am going to tell you that I have a 4 yr degree. It doesn’t matter anyway. I have never been in a situation that it really mattered. It’s like an entrance fee to a club. That’s about all.
    As to “anon this time” ‘s comment. I think education should be available to all. But with this means that education will be watered down. Will the price of education go up if all the “foreigners” leave, who knows. It’s a system wide problem. Ideally I would think that pay, cost and everything else would go up in an orderly fashion. But with teachers unions, and all that bullsh*t, the costs go up when they probably shouldn’t. But personally I don’t really know to be honest. Everyone wants to make money. So perhaps education is artificially high. Perhaps it low. I got not a clue. However what I gather from your post is that by letting in foreigners that are willing to pay we are keeping the costs lower for the domestic studentss.
    @Max. uh, I’m not sure where you work or in what industry but I have had the opposite happen. First we would have to define dishonesty to then discuss this. But at least with my Canadian, American, and German customers the terms are pretty straight forward. I have had little to no trouble at all. Pay, produce product, ship, that’s about it. But with Chinese suppliers and customers, there is always a game to play. And since I work for a Chinese company I see the game from the inside. Yes there are tactics to negotiating on both sides, but how to not pay, how to ship bad product, and how to get away with what has been already done, it’s a pretty common thing here in China. In America I have not experienced as much as I have here in China. However in high competition industries I suppose that this could very well be a normal thing everywhere in the world.
    I also think it depends who you are dealing with. If an American company were dealing with a Chinese company I would think that they would be more willing to use dishonesty than dealing with a local company, and same goes with Chinese companies.
    So, maybe the Chinese student don’t care about what the school or local students think for that matter. Perhaps all they want is that piece of paper to show their parents and employers that they will potentially have back in China.
    Everyone lies. To what extent is the difference. No one cares until it effects them. That’s life..

  • I find the argument that because something is present in other places as well as in China so it’s not specific to or relevant to a discussion about China” to be both disingenuous and simplistic.
    I do completely agree that the dishonesty in China is due precisely to the system that is in place–and has less to do with genetic Chinese people per se than with general human nature. BUT since China’s system allows for this type of behavior (less chance of getting caught or punished) then it’s a relevant discussion to have as it pertains to doing business in China.
    You don’t say, “all people do accounting the same way so we can’t talk about it, it’s not specific to China.” Likewise, just because there is corruption in other places that does not mean that the discussion about rampant corruption in China isn’t useful. Your own question of “American cheaters” and example the of wild west in the US in the last century prove the point–weren’t all developed countries like this at some point in their early history before they were developed? Of course. But there is still value in this discussion at it pertains to China even though it’s human nature.
    Most of us were not around last century and/or do not have experience in a system quite like the amoral atmosphere currently commonplace in China. Just as you need to remind people to have a contract (in Chinese), most new comers to China need to be reminded that trust and what’s legal and what’s acceptable and what can be enforced and what can be justified are all different here than they are in the more regulated west.

  • Twofish

    Sam: There is only the judge who decides. If you have a contract written in Chinese that is all well and good… but it’s equally fairly useless.
    Just as a legal note. Jury trials are extremely uncommon with respect to contract disputes in the United States. Most contract disputes are settled through private negotiations. Those that aren’t usually end up in arbitration. If you don’t go into arbitration, then usually the parties to the dispute are seeking a relief in equity rather than in law (i.e. either an injunction or restitution), and in those situations there is no jury.
    Even if there are situations where there is a contract dispute at law, jury trials are extremely uncommon because, the in the US system, the judge tries the law and the jury tries the facts, and usually in contract disputes the facts are not under much dispute.
    Even when you have a factual dispute, businesses avoid jury trials because they are extremely expensive and most businesses want a hearing in front of a judge whose rulings are predictable rather than to throw the dice at a jury.
    And that’s the US. Jury trials don’t happen in continental Europe, and if you don’t trust the Chinese legal system, you can have an arbitration clause.
    Talking about juries to Chinese people, I often get “are you kidding me?” responses. The general reaction I get to jury trials is that they’d never work in China, because for all the problems with judge trials, jurors would be much more subject to corruption and coercion than judges.

  • Twofish

    Harris: The director of the international division of Beijing’s high-profile Peking University High School writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how U.S. colleges should interview Chinese high school students to accurately gauge their abilities…..
    Just to point out the obvious fact here. The author has an obvious agenda here in that he is trying to market his students…..
    Harris: What Jiang describes is due diligence, pure and simple and tailored to the specific situation, just as it should be. And it is precisely what many American universities have not done.
    And it’s wrong. What is likely to happen when you ask those questions is that the student will parrot the answer that Peking University High School has taught them to give when a university asks these sorts of questions.
    “What do you think?” is I think an extremely unfair question for most Chinese students. I mean suppose you are in a Beijing street and suddenly some random person asks you “what do you think about the governmebnt?” You aren’t going to tell them, are you? He could be from the Ministry of State Security for all you know. If you are a high school student, and you dislike the government, you aren’t going to be putting that into an essay, and if you are a decent teacher, you aren’t going to be forcing your students to write essays on what they think.
    One rule of business is to be wary when a supplier tells you how to run your business because the supplier wants you to do what’s good for them, and not necessarily what you want. Truth be told, most colleges would *prefer* to have students that just take in the lessons and do their work.

  • andeli

    @ “you should assume that 90 percent of what your Chinese counter-party tells you is false”
    If you cannot tell but have to assume that your Chinese counter-party is a liar 90 % of the time, then you should find another business to do.

  • Chris

    It is amazing all the defenders of cheats and liars here. Pudding poses the situation, If I only have an associates degree and I hang with people who have obtained Bachelors or Masters degrees. If I hang with them and there is no noticeable difference between us, is it bad that I say I have a graduate degree? YES IT IS… doing so, you cheapen the time and effort that those people took to actually achieve that degree. NOT EVERYONE has the ability to get higher degrees. That is why there is a system to weed out those who are not capably or qualified. Yes, it is an elitist system. You have to actually have some skills, ability and determination to achieve a higher degree. And by default, you deserve more rewards for that. By saying that you have a degree the same as your friends (even if you have the skills) cheapens their efforts and obtainment. You also disrespect your friends by saying you have obtained such degrees when you have not.
    So please everyone here, please trying to justify cheating. Cheating is cheating is cheating. There are no excuse, cultural differences, etc. If you are not good enough to write your own essay, or achieve the best scores possible on the day the exam is taken, they you do not deserve the achievement of entering that school. What about the kids who did do everything on their own and correctly? You disrespect them and their efforts. Money cannot solve everything. Cash cannot buy integrity

  • Julien Zhang

    Dan, in linking to David Daytons article and disagreeing with his comment “that Chinese are amoral and have no common values” I think you confuse the word “amoral” with the word “immoral” to be frank. The Chinese are incredibly amoral as a matter of fact, as the recent episode involving the two year old run over by a lorry and everyone walking past has aptly and sadly demonstrated. I’d be more inclined to listen to David’s position on this subject.

  • anon this time

    You do realize that there is a huge difference between the idea of a bunch of Chinese people “walking past” the two-year-old from fear of financial culpability and walking past out of indifference? Do you really believe that the Chinese are just that heartless? By citing amorality; what gain does any Chinese person get from skirting moral laws in the unfortunate incident you cited?
    Once again: any and every short-coming in Chinese society shows them lacking in some basic trait of “humaneness” that we ourselves possess in great quantity.
    Except perhaps on Long Island, apparently a cesspool of American amorality:
    Granted, their accents can be grating, but who knew that Long Islanders were such reprobates??

  • Max

    @Folker Muller
    Haven’t checked back until recently.
    Yes, I have statistics and evidence:
    Wallets returned per country (China is the second lowest):
    Bribe payers index (again, China is the second lowest):