Degrees from Western universities have become so prized in China in recent years that degree mills and fake certificate producers have mushroomed, making the country one of the world’s major producers of bogus degrees – not just for customers in China, but across Asia and beyond.
With an ongoing crackdown by Chinese authorities and the ubiquity of genuine degrees from the US, UK and Australia among Chinese graduates, the shadowy industry appears to be moving into lucrative new areas – professional qualifications designed to smooth the way into coveted jobs.
“A foreign degree used to be seen as ‘gold plated’ in China. It’s no longer the same because now lot of Chinese students come back from universities in the US and UK,” said Ning Guan, strategic development manager at UK Naric, the National Recognition Information Centre, which specialises in identifying and tracking bogus degrees on behalf of UK universities and large companies recruiting internationally.
“China’s labour market has become more demanding. Before, you could go back [to China] and get a good job. Now you need a professional qualification to go with your foreign degree to get a decent job. So there is definitely a market opening up for this kind of qualification,” she told University World News.
The proliferation of private universities in China and the relaxation of degree-awarding rules to cover different types of qualifications, including online degrees and qualifications from the increasing number of branch campuses, has meant it is easy to offer bogus courses as ‘affiliate degrees’ of genuine institutions.
Meanwhile, foreign degrees have become so common that universities and companies often do not check certificates.
The authorities in China have become more vigilant about fake foreign degrees. But from small-scale print shops producing knock-off certificates sent by mail, the scams have become more ambitious.
“The fake agencies operate in the name of a branch office of a foreign university in China or claim they have authorised cooperation with foreign schools,” said Rao Mindang, an official with Beijing’s Haidian district procuratorate, speaking to official media.
High profile cases
In one of the highest profile cases recently, nine people went to trial in Beijing last month for their involvement in a racket that provided fake postgraduate degrees to some 30 people, including executives of major international corporations, described by the authorities as ‘Fortune 500 companies’.
Beijing court officials pointed to the lengths to which operators go, renting office buildings in Beijing’s Haidian district, close to major universities such as Tsinghua University, and recruiting lecturers from top universities for a minimum of CNY10,000 (US1,588) a lecture, in order to appear more genuine.
Officials of Beijing’s Haidian district procuratorate have said while there is no evidence to prove the lecturers knew they were part of an illegal operation, investigating officials had reason to believe the lecturers “knew exactly what they were doing”.
The Haidian procuratorate said another seven scams involving fake foreign degrees and training schemes were being investigated by the office, China Youth Daily reported.
Training centre scam
The Beijing trial attracted attention because many of the people buying the fake degrees were already in top jobs.
But in a case involving many more people, Beijing police this month announced the arrest of 422 suspects for their involvement in illegal training centres delivering qualifications purporting to be endorsed by national ministries.
The suspects stand accused of using a central government department’s name to enrol students from across the country, and may have conned victims out of more than CNY10 million (US$1.6 million), official media reported.
In some cases, participants were led to believe the training was run by the building industry’s Beijing branch of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.
In one example, the organisers claimed they could provide ‘advanced project manager’ certificates under the authority of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. Ministry endorsement is often required for professional qualifications.
“They claimed to be running classes in preparation for professional licensing exams and told applicants that they would be given official certificates authorised by the ministry,” Liu Chunjiang, a senior officer with Beijing’s Fengtai district police bureau, was quoted as saying.
Police seized 500 fake documents, including training certificates for a number of professions including accountancy and medicine, as well as fake invoices.
In another major case, in Qingdao in eastern Shandong province, police destroyed some 7,000 fake certificates in March, including forged certificates ordered by a construction company to give employees engineering credentials, to help the company qualify for government contracts.
According to the Qingdao authorities, half of the seized forged certificates were for university degrees, but 30% were for specialist qualifications including professional and vocational titles.
Although a large quantity, it was not just the overall number of the seized fake certificates that aroused interest – they appeared to indicate a new and lucrative avenue for fraudsters.
“We still see a lot of fake university qualifications from China and also the quality is quite good,” said Ning, who has been monitoring China closely for many years. But the move towards bogus qualifications that would lead to jobs in China “is a new trend”, she said.
With high graduate unemployment, even for those with degrees from the US, the UK and Australia, graduates need to distinguish themselves from their job-seeking peers in other ways.
“If you have a degree and a professional registration, it is more attractive,” Ning said, adding that a fake professional qualification could also be cheaper than obtaining a fake foreign degree.
The Qingdao swindlers provided professional accreditation certificates by government departments for CNY3,000 or more.
A fake degree purporting to be from a US university can cost hundreds of thousands of yuan, and in some cases – such as a fake American MBA – applicants must also have several years' management experience in a big or medium-sized company, for it to be passed off as authentic.
More sophisticated schemes
Rao Mindang, of the Beijing Haidian procuratorate, said previous degree mill cases usually targeted students who had failed highly competitive college entrance exams and wanted a degree certificate.
The more sophisticated schemes targeting the high end had emerged only recently.
In particular, credentials that can lead to secure and prestigious jobs as government employees are sought after. “There are national examinations for government recruitment and many courses to prepare for them, and some are fraudulent,” said Ning.
Police said it was essential to catch those setting up the bogus organisations, with rising numbers of complaints. In many cases, students are completely unaware that they are attending a qualifications mill.
Even if students are caught with bogus degrees, it is not easy to charge them.
This month Wuhan University of Technology in Hubei province said it was investigating a case of more than 100 graduates suspected of obtaining a masters degree from the institution fraudulently, after it was found they had used fake bachelor degree certificates to gain admission, according to the Guangzhou-based New Express newspaper.
The students are likely to escape punishment because it is the university that must verify certificates.
Wang Shuli, vice-dean of the university’s school of economics, acknowledged in China Daily that the college was responsible for verifying, but said it was “not always easy” to carry out the checks.
"If the universities' stamps on the applicants' certificates appear genuine, they will pass the verification process," he said.
Admissions employees can often experience difficulties. "When we attempt to check the authenticity of diplomas issued by other universities, we are always rebuffed," he said.
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