Why Chinese Pastors Cheat

Why Chinese Pastors Cheat July 2, 2013

Last week, I discussed an article about some rioting Chinese parents who protested “There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

Having received a lot of feedback about the article, I would now like to add some thoughts of my own based on my time teaching Chinese church leaders.communal-cheating
First, I’ll summarize some of the things I’ve experienced. Then, I’ll share my own perspective and offer some suggestions.

Previously, I worked a lot with Chinese college students, whose stories of cheating are pretty illuminating. One student told me about a common tradition among university students (at least in her area). At their class graduation party, one of their activities was to recount the various ways they cheated during their 4 years–––and all this with their professors listening to the stories! One girl shared how her graduate adviser recommended that she actually write her thesis (rather than hired someone to do it for her), since she was a good student. Obviously, his assumption is that most students would/should simply hire someone to do it for them.

For a very shocking insightful article, check out Han Chen’s “What’s Wrong With Chinese Higher Education.” For people interested in secondary education, see a good post called “What’s Wrong with China’s Secondary Education System.

Even Chinese Pastors Cheat

Cheating is endemic even among Christians in China. Of course, not all Chinese church leaders cheat. It’s only been a few years since I started to explicitly check for cheating/plagiarism. Since then, I have yet to have a single class where I didn’t find at least on instance of plagiarism/cheating in a class. These students are all people who are now in church ministry (most of my students) or are in preparation for such work. The number of students found cheating/plagiarizing is much larger in the second, younger group.

They are very skilled at hiding it. Previously, I have used advanced software to help me find examples of plagiarism. I myself have also become decently proficient in identifying it. They might change pronouns (“we” to “I”), add an “and”, or simply change the order of the sentences. I very regularly find essays where half or more of the assignment is lifted directly from various Chinese websites.

When I give exams, I give different versions of the test to make cheating more difficult. However, I have found it to be the case that one student, who had version 1 of the test, did very poorly; yet, his answers conveniently match really well with version 2, which the neighboring student took. In addition, the written answers (short answers, fill in the blank, etc) didn’t make any sense for his version of the exam.

On the peculiar side, I recently warned the students that time was about to expire for a test, giving a minute warning and a 10-second countdown. When I picked up one older student’s test, he jerked it back from me and forcefully wouldn’t let me take it from him. Finally, I had to tell him I would count his additional answers.

Saved by Face, Not By Works

Contrary to convention thinking among many western Christians, the great problem among the Chinese is not that they are trying to be “saved by works.” After all, doing good works is just one way to get face. One can also get face through via other routes, like establishing relationships (guanxi), having a title, or simply giving the impression that you are worth being honored by others. So, as long as a person gets a degree, then the piece of paper will guarantee some measure of face––whether you earned it or not.

“Face” is either “achieved” or “ascribed.” Western theology overemphasizes “achieved” honor (i.e. good works) to the expense of “ascribed” honor. I talk much more about all this in chapter 4 of Saving God’s Face. We must be careful not to oversimplify the problem by saying “They just want face.” We need to understand at a deeper level the why and how of face.

A Spirit of Fear

I’ve seen otherwise confident adults begin to wilt in fear when they step back into the classroom. Early in childhood, they begin to link their personal worth to their grades. It would seem that academics is sole concern of many parents. An old Chinese motto says, “Education changes one’s destiny.” The child’s success very practically determines the future welfare of his entire family (and the generations that follow).

In addition, the Chinese education system heavily focuses on memorization not logical analysis. (This makes sense given their entire language must be learned by memorizing characters. The language has no alphabet.) What happens when pastors have to study biblical interpretation, systematic theology, and are challenged to integrate doctrine and practice? People cheat. Some revert to being 12 year olds, forgetting the entire reason they are studying in a seminary.

I’ve also heard people tell me that a pastor must at least convey he has all the answers; otherwise, how could his church trust him? If this is the case, then there’s no one they can listen to if they want to learn about God. As a result, people will turn away from God. It’s too dangerous to admit ignorance or being wrong.

At least, this is how many people think.

In a few upcoming posts, I’ll respond to problematic comments I’ve heard people make about this problem. Also, I’ll give some of my own suggestions how we can better address the issue.

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  • I really like your article. I am a high school student in China, studying in foreign school. Our foreign teachers don’t really let us cheat, while local teachers encourage us to cheat because they don’t want to lose face in front of their foreign mates. Our English teacher started a group in the school to prevent cheating. She is holding educational classes on why cheating is bad, she writes articles, she does many things… but it’s just all useless. If system doesn’t want to change, we must change it!

    I am really stugglng because of cheating. Some my classmates cheat and they get US school admission, while I have to stay in China…