Will Chinese exam cheaters be sent to prison?

New Chinese regulations aimed at curbing rampant cheating on national college entrance exams could impose a criminal penalty for those circumventing testing rules.

Police vehicles clear a path for students leaving school to attend China's annual national college entrance exam or "gaokao" as people see the them off in Liu'an, Anhui Province, China on Sunday.

As Chinese high school graduates work to prepare for the college entry exams crucial to their futures, they also must be wary of following new rules – or face up to seven years in prison.

Near the completion of high school, millions of students in China typically ready for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly called the gaokao, whose results grant admission into undergraduate programs based on performance. Many Chinese families view the test as a road to opportunity, despite its infamous stress. Students in rural areas or who belong to ethnic minorities may come into the gaokao with an educational disadvantage, but the test now provides some of them with an affirmative action bonus.

But as the annual test's importance has grown, more and more students have tried to game the system, leading Chinese law enforcement to impose strict penalties on those caught cheating – including, for the first time, a jail sentence.

A slip-up on the multiple-day, 9-hour gaokao could more or less guarantee the end to a student's higher education ambitions, at least until the next round of testing, which has led to the widespread use of underhanded strategies Chinese authorities hope to eliminate. The employment of professional exam takers, who impersonate students in pursuit of recording a better score, the marketing of supposed test answer keys, and even the sale of spy-like wireless cheating devices have become so widespread that, in November the nation's criminal law was amended to punish scammers with jail time.

Cheaters could face up to seven years in jail as well as a ban from the gaokao for three years, according to Reuters. The penalty may seem severe, but it is one of the few resources Chinese officials say they have to combat the potential thousands of cheaters out of the estimated 9.4 million students who will sit for the test this year.

"Safeguarding fairness in the gaokao and education in general is the baseline for China to maintain social justice," Beijing’s 21st Century Education Research Institute vice president Xiong Bingqi told the Global Times. 

Among the safeguards: Drones and metal detectors have been used to detect cheating, and some students will be put through fingerprinting and facial recognition checkpoints to ensure they are who they said they were, according to state broadcaster China Central Television. But such measures proved costly and inefficient, prompting the new criminal penalties. 

Some 170 people suspected of cheating, or facilitating cheating, have been arrested, and more than 6,000 pieces of "illegal information" have been "dealt with," according to the Global Times. 

This year, Gaokao testing grounds will be guarded by police officers, according to CCTV, and SWAT teams will guard the examination papers themselves. Local authorities will also aim to create a better test-taking environment for students by enforcing noise and traffic restrictions near test-taking sites, where parents anxiously wait outside. 

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