Exam cheating is ‘illegal acquisition of state secrets’

The case of graduate admissions examination fraud in China’s northern Heilongjiang province has been described by official media as an “illegal acquisition of state secrets”, in what is seen as stepping up the campaign against cheating in state-held exams.

The MBA centre at Harbin University of Science and Technology, in the capital of Heilongjiang province, was reported to have used electronic devices – in particular earpieces connected wirelessly to devices to aid exam participants to cheat on the national graduate student entrance exam.

The national exams were held around the country on 4-5 January.

The centre also reportedly trained some candidates on how to use the devices for the exam. The suspects have been charged with stealing state secrets, official media revealed this week, as exam questions are protected under China’s security legislation.

An undercover report by China’s official broadcaster CCTV reported last month that more than an hour after a test started “mysterious voices” from a “suspicious frequency” were detected at the Zhihengzhi training centre in Beijing.

CCTV reporters found that the university in Harbin runs a graduate MBA programme and was cooperating with the Beijing training centre.

According to CCTV, reporters had followed up on spam that advertises “high pass rate in China’s graduate MBA exam”, helping them to uncover the scam.

The training centre said it could guarantee students would pass their exams for about CNY40,000 (US$6,600), according to the report that directly triggered a Ministry of Education investigation.

Education authorities said a total of 223 candidates in the province were found to have cheated in the national graduate entrance exams in January. Of these, 123 people used communication devices.

So far, police have detained nine suspects and confiscated 90 sets of equipment used to cheat. The case has been said to involve a total of CNY1.5 million ($247,650), the official news agency Xinhua reported last Monday, adding that investigations are ongoing.

Two teams, one from the Public Security Bureau and the other led by the Heilongjiang Provincial Education Department, have been established to investigate the fraud, the official Global Times newspaper reported.

One of the directors of the MBA centre and a deputy head of the university's Graduate School have been suspended for investigation, said Zhao Hong, vice president of the university.

Recruitment for the university's MBA for 2015 has also been suspended, according to the provincial recruitment and exam authorities. The centre’s license to host postgraduate exams has been suspended for a year.

The Ministry of Education issued a circular last September to tighten up the recruitment of graduate students. “Cheating in exams should be prevented by ensuring smooth operation of the anti-cheating system including monitors and metal detectors,” the circular urged.

The law on state secrets

This is not the first time the law on state secrets has been used in a case of examination cheating.

In 2009 eight parents and teachers were jailed on similar charges for up to three years after high-tech communication devices were used at a Zhejiang province school to help students cheat in the university entrance exam, the gaokao.

The widely reported case involved eight adults – parents operating in collusion with teachers – and was discovered when police detected what was described as “abnormal radio signals” near the examination centre.

In recent years the classification of examination papers for exams such as the gaokao and the graduate entrance examinations has been upgraded to ‘top secret’ from ‘secret’ in order to curb misconduct.

However, legal experts say that the country’s secrecy laws are vague compared to similar laws in other countries and point out that it is hard to see how exam cheating can threaten national security or national interest.

“There are laws against examination malpractices in criminal law, however there is no law for cheating per se,” according to one law academic who declined to be named.