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Birds in false feathers
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Enthusiasm for pursuing academic degrees has been popular in China's political circles recently. Certainly officials who receive on-the-job education and enrich themselves deserve encouragement and promotion. But apparently, some of them have obtained their degrees in a short period via personal power and public funds, under the auspices of certain higher educational institutions.

Experts regard the counterfeiting academic credentials by officials as corruption. This behavior impairs the academic atmosphere, fosters an official's misconduct and further undermines the social foundation of credit and fairness.

A classroom full of secretaries

Since the 1990s, the central government has raised their standards for cadre appointments. Younger officials with higher education levels and specialized knowledge have been promoted to key posts.

The Provisional Regulations for Selection and Appointment of Party and Government Leading Cadres, issued in February 1995, stipulated that leading cadres generally must hold a vocational college or higher educational degree, and those provincial or ministerial cadres should have a college or higher educational degree.

In January 2006, the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) further clarified that the local chief cadres should consist of young officials aged around 45 with a college or higher education degrees.

Meanwhile, the Organization Department also underlined the implementation of a standard that may allow some flexibility. However, many local officials seem to be using academic credentials as a stepping-stone toward quick promotion.

"I'm busy with administrative affairs; I simply cannot spend much time to study," complained a deputy head of a county in Hunan Province. "But without an academic credential, you will not be promoted no matter how great your achievements."

The deputy head also recalled his political career. He has received a vocational college education and formerly served as a Party secretary of a township for years. There he watched helplessly as his less capable colleagues who held higher academic degrees get promoted. "I had no choice but apply to the provincial committee's Party school. The year after my graduation, I was promoted to my current position," he said. "I know this is not a real diploma, but it's really useful."

Other local officials have had the same experience. Some have even obtained academic credentials via personal power and public funds.

"There are a variety of ways for officials to wangle a diploma," said a teacher in charge of post-graduate education in a college. "Usually, officials will show up a few times during enrollment, examinations and graduation. Their secretaries sit for them in classes. Sometimes, teachers are lecturing to a class full of secretaries."

A secretary revealed that he was assigned to fill in for his boss in class. "I will return to my unit when my boss graduates. My performance during these two years of study will pave a positive road for my own future development," he said.

"Officials obtain diplomas by asking their secretaries to act as substitutes and by bribing supervisors with public funds. It is an open secret," said Li Chengyan, a doctoral advisor from the School of Government, Peking University.

Since the central ministries have stricter cadre election and appointment procedures, such "questionable academic credentials" are more popular during local promotions. In some poor rural areas of western China, a handful of cadres, including county Party secretaries, county magistrates, even director of police station are often awarded "Master of Economics" or "Master of Law".

Statistics showed that by the end of 2006, 9.9 percent of 110,000 college education credentials submitted to the National College Student Information and Career Guidance Center for authentication were "questionable".

Former vice governor of Jiangxi Province Hu Changqing, who was executed for corruption, had bought a diploma of "Bachelor of Law" near the noted Peking University. He even called himself "a talent of Peking University" and a "law professor."

Ma Xiangdong, former vice mayor of Shenyang, Liaoning Province, also obtained a master's degree during his tenure. It was reported that all his essays submitted to courses at the Central Party School were composed by a group of his secretaries.

Unveiling the interest chain behind false academic credentials

Experts attribute this long-standing corruption phenomenon to the worship of higher education by cadres seeking election. Moreover, the interest chain connecting officials and educational organs also opens a door for false academic credentials.

Driven by economic interest, some colleges and universities open "express courses" for officials. Some even receive financial aid from provincial governments after issuing diplomas to cadres of a certain level.

"Most of local officials attend post-graduate courses for higher degrees," said a teacher in charge of post-graduate student enrolment. "Post-graduate classes offering on-the-job training are not authorized to confer a degree. But some universities and colleges ignore academic stipulations in lieu of potential profits.

"Such classes may charge a student 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (US$2699-4048) a year. The schools don't give invoices to students in order to avoid paying taxes. Then the huge surplus gets distributed to the staff as a bonus."

In 2004, several senior officials of the Hainan provincial Party school were punished for a diploma scandal. The school had issued thousands of "questionable diplomas" by the end of 2003.

On the other hand, some officials who care more about their faces choose regular post-graduate courses. But, compared to other students, they don't have to take entrance exams seriously.

"The secret of passing exams lies in the student's relationship with his supervisors," revealed a secretary who confessed that he had manipulated such a relationship for his boss. "They will leak exam contents if you have 'good communication channels'."

When asked about officials' "questionable academic credentials", some teachers said that they had no alternative but compromise. "Every year when the enrollment begins, I will be requested to give special attention to certain officials," said a college teacher in charge of enrollment. "Among those special 'students' are cadres in charge of research funds and projects approval. Our school needs their support. We cannot afford to displease them."

But other teachers hold different ideas, saying that enrolling powerful official students is a win-win situation for both parties. "Apart from convenience in applying research projects, colleges and universities will probably raise their reputation," said another teacher. "Many colleges like to boast about their sparkling alumni."

Impairing social credit basis

The Chinese government has been tightening the punishment for officials caught using false academic credentials in recent years. In October 2004, the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee disclosed the results of their two-year investigation: among 670,000 cadres above county level, there was one "questionable academic credential" among every 40 persons.

"This investigation storm cracked down on the scandal for a time," admitted Professor Li Chengyan. "Unfortunately the phenomenon has surfaced again. The government must establish a more permanent mechanism."

Recent scandals including those in Portuguese and South Korean political circles have again attracted the public's attention to domestic officials' "questionable academic credentials".

"Forging academic credentials impairs the image of cadres, even that of the Party," said a staff in charge of cadre election.

A retired cadre criticized those officials for deceiving the public, adding that a false education level possibly reflects false administrative achievements.

Experts think the activities of such officials also impair the reputation of the education system. "A college campus should be innocent of bribery and graft," said an expert, adding that such scandals may trigger a credit crisis and impinge on justice.

Punishment system needed to permanently harness the unhealthy practice

"It's a positive trend to pay attention to officials' academic credentials during cadre elections," said Mao Shoulong, dean of Department of Administrative Management, Renmin University. "But on the other hand, we should evaluate a cadre based on his or her capability."

A lawyer from Beijing suggested establishing pertinent supervisory systems to curb the unhealthy practice. "We could set up supervision systems that encouraged the public to report an official's misconduct. Moreover, a more severe punishment system could sound an alarm to other officials who might be thinking of misbehaving," the lawyer said.

An anonymous cadre called for the government to establish an approval system that would inspect government officials' expenses and study performances during their on-the-job training.

"If the whole training process were made public, it would reduce the amount of false academic credentials to some extent," noted Professor Qi Shanhong of Nankai University.

(Translated from the Outlook magazine for by Huang Shan November 11, 2007)

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