A Chinese reality TV show unwittingly revealed the problem of fake students in France.                                 

Chinese youngsters studying in the West are often perceived as diligent and driven. But those in France are being seen in a less-positive light these days, or so they fear. The main concern among the hardworking ones is that they may be mistaken for fake students who pay for their degrees and can’t speak French.

The concerns have been sparked by a televised incident involving Guo Jie, a 32-year-old from Shanxi province, and Wen Yi, a chief executive working in Beijing. A few months ago, Guo appeared as a contestant on a job-hunting reality TV show in Beijing akin to the American programme The Apprentice.

Having spent 10 years in France allegedly studying everything from tourism to film, Guo returned to the mainland and tried to land a job on the show. It became obvious he stood little chance of winning when guest judge Wen, who claimed to have a degree from the prestigious Esmod fashion school in Paris, was asked to test his French.

Perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Wen slowly enunciated a question in French about tourism, and Guo responded with an answer the former said was completely irrelevant. She then said it was “unbelievable” that Guo had earned a degree given his mediocre French.

The host of the show joined in the interrogation and asked Guo to name a movie by French director Jean-Luc Godard or talk about Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to prove he had studied film. He couldn’t, and the audience burst into laughter. The humiliation apparently proved too much for Guo, who turned pale and fainted.

The cringe-worthy episode triggered an avalanche of criticism on the mainland against almost everyone who took part in the show. But for Chinese students in France, the focus was on Wen and her language skills. The young critics derided her French, noting that her question contained 15 mistakes. French people joined the debate when the story made it to France’s Le Monde newspaper. “As a French speaker, I had difficulties understanding her gibberish,” wrote one reader. When some young Chinese studying in Paris wrote to Esmod to check if Wen had studied there, the school said it had no record of any former student under that name.

Both Wen and Guo have been lying low since. But the TV debacle renewed concerns about fakes among Chinese students in France, who are now said to number 35,000.

In March, French police arrested a Chinese man for allegedly operating three diploma mills in Paris. About 600 Chinese students had each paid €1,800 (HK$17,300) in return for good results. In 2009, a university in Toulon made the news for reportedly taking bribes from hundreds of Chinese students and awarding them degrees despite “lamentable” grades.

Dubious students may be in the minority, but they are cause for concern. “There are some black sheep among this big herd of white sheep,” says Lu Yin, an art student in Paris. “But they stand out and are making us look bad.”

Published in Post Magazine on 12 August 2012