Kuora: On Chinese cheating - SupChina

Kuora: On Chinese cheating

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on May 9, 2018:

Why do many forms of cheating — surrogate test taking, IP theft, answer sharing, plagiarism, use of paper mills, subversion of regulations, low-level bribery, etc. — seem to be widely considered a justifiable means to an end in China?

I don’t think there’s much of a mystery here. It’s all basically a function of scarcity and of the intensity of competition, and these in turn come down to the fact of China’s enormous population, breakneck development, and brutally pragmatic focus on results.

In the nearly 40 years since reform and opening began at the very end of the 1970s, China has been a place where a kind of Social Darwinian law of the jungle has prevailed. A society where the bedrock Confucian ethics already tended toward situational, where there’s never really been any dominant religious institution claiming transcendent moral authority, and where access to every rung on the ladder of success was already contested, the introduction of an ethos of “to get rich is glorious” was bound to create something of a mad scramble.

To be sure, there are still many, many good and honest people in China for whom the rules still matter, who would never think to cheat, or to falsify data, or to jump the queue or bribe an official. But I think anyone who looks at China today honestly must recognize that those solid citizens have diminished in number appreciably over the last four decades.

In this time, the flaunting of the material and political rewards that came with “success” has been so common, has been on such conspicuous display, that it’s easy, at least for me, to understand why anyone wanting to play strictly by the rules would be viewed as a chump or a sucker. When dishonesty seems to pay so handsomely and honesty seems to lead only to penury, it’s to be expected, regrettably, that many within society will choose dishonesty.

This normalization of selfishness, this brutal pragmatism, this primacy assigned to “success” — it’s all also, I believe, the fundamental reason that so many Chinese people both in China and in diaspora voiced support for the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016, and why so many continue to support him today.

Why are so many first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Donald Trump?

Kuora is a weekly column.

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.


  1. Anthony Carlino Reply

    I think this “culture of cheating” is rooted, as Kaiser says, in the economic conditions of average people in China. However, this reminds me of something I heard a while ago which I think is probably true, “Smart children learn how to lie early.”

    If I was searching for a positive spin on Chinese cheating, then I would attribute it to both the hyper-competitive conditions and perhaps a little bit of Chinese ingenuity.

    My Sicilian-American ancestors, or at least the community in which they lived, had their own culture of cheating. Dense population, fierce competition for jobs, general economic desperation; the conditions of Sicilian-Americans in New York City during the late 19th and early 20th century prompted the organized crime for which that community is known beyond any other quality.

    But just as Kaiser cited the already situational nature of Confucianism and the historical lack of transcendent moral authority in the case of the Chinese, Sicilians had their own organized crime culture back on their home island long before they settled in New York.

    The observable culture of cheating, which marked my people throughout their early history in America, and perhaps marks the Chinese today, exists principally because of desperate conditions, but also reinforces from the culture and history of the people.

    This idea reminds me of how some genes create susceptibility to a trait, but not automatic expression of a trait in an organism. Multiple genes, in humans and rats, create a susceptibility to anti-social violent behavior, but those genes only express themselves when the organism experiences violent trauma in early life. Similarly, Sicilians and Chinese may have a history of cheating to get ahead, but I think that cultural inheritance only plays out when conditions call for it.

  2. AE Perkins Reply

    This is all very true and accurate. Honesty in China is not held in high regard. In my 4 years in Beijing, I experienced one case after another where people were ripping each other off. Then my wife and I moved to the United States, and she still refuses to trust anyone she meets, especially in matters of business.

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