In the 2003 film School of Rock, a struggling musician impersonates a teacher and unlocks his students’ rock talent with his unorthodox ways. In Chinese sleeper hit Mr. Donkey (2017), a village gets a subsidy to pay for a donkey by pretending it’s their English teacher, leading to awkward situations and (depending on which critic you ask) hilarity.
But as an Anhui woman named Wang Yingying discovered, real identity theft is no musical romp, and speaks to what’s delicately known as an “historically leftover problem” in China.
On November 29, CNR News reported that a school in Suzhou, Anhui province, discovered that Teacher “Wang Yingying” was not who she claimed. A real woman by that name had first applied for the position in 1997 and had been accepted in 1999. However, she never got the message, and an imposter named Miao Juan presented herself to take up the job in 2001, holding it for the next 16 years.
The imposter used Wang’s teacher’s certificate, as well as ID number and CV while at school, and even went by Wang’s identity in her daily life. As the real Wang had left town to work in Shanghai and Guangdong province, it was not until 2016 that she found that her name and ID had been stolen, when she returned to her hometown and found her new employer was unable to register her for social benefits.
However, Miao has now told Anhui TV that she, too, is the victim in the situation—she’d “bought” the job, fair and square, from Wang’s mother, who was a colleague of her uncle’s. In China, adopting others’ identities for better education and job opportunities is made easier by a lack of electronic record-keeping and communication between the separate bureaus that handle identification, hukou, and professional certifications. At times, it also stems from a perverted sense of justice, and the belief that China’s best jobs and educational opportunities are not open to all.
In Miao’s case, she had been dismissed from a previous teaching job. Teaching in a public school is regarded an “iron rice bowl” job in China, funded by the government and much respected by society. Wang, because her parents were both teachers, could apply for the teaching post internally through one of her parents’ connections. She has not commented on Miao’s allegation that her mother was involved in the con.
There have been a dozen other cases of identity theft reported in last two decades, and the number of undiscovered cons may be even more, as victims may not be aware when their identities are stolen. In 2004, a student named Luo Caixia had her identity and results in National College Entrance Exam used by a classmate to enroll in college, while Luo herself studied to retake the exam the following year. The imposter, now a year ahead of Luo, did everything using Luo’s identity—register a bank account, get a Bachelor’s degree, get a teaching certificate—before Luo could. Since the con was discovered in 2009, similar incidents have been referred to as “Luo Caixia cases,” and other well-known victims include Qi Yuling, Wang Nana, Lei Menglian, and Zeng Qiaojuan.
Corruption may be behind some of the biggest cons: Matters like withholding acceptance letters to the real recipient, or fabricating their IDs, educational documents, and even household registration, take connections and potentially money changing hands. On the other hand, the fact that these frauds were not discovered for years in spite of interviews, ID verification, and background checks from the school or employer speak to inefficiency and a lack of due diligence within the bureaucracy.
Wang Yingying tells Anhui TV she is unwilling to let her imposter get away with her act, and intends fight for her rights. Miao has now been suspended from her job and the case is being investigated by local authorities. However, because cases of identity theft can involve parties in different regions, many government agencies, and may date some years back, China Youth Daily warns that it’s hard for the victims to reclaim their identity and the damages for the losses suffered. In Luo’s case, it took 15 months and a lawsuit to get her identity back before her graduation. Wang Nana, a Henan student, had given up on going to college after falsely believing she didn’t pass the entrance exams. When she discovered the truth 13 years later, the school wouldn’t reinstate her offer, and she never even got an apology from the imposter who took her place.
Frauds like these may be harder to pull off once China develops its nationwide “social credit system,” which can keep track of a person’s identity and actions across many different departments. Until a better solution arrives, though, it may be best to follow up on any job application or exam—even when you think you have no chance at all.