One hour and about 40 dollars is all it takes to get a fake degree in China, but the chances of fooling an employer or foreign university have diminished following a crackdown in recent years.
While the trade in counterfeit Hermes handbags or Windows software is well known, marriage certificates, driving licences and diplomas are also seen as fair game by the forgers.
Measures put in place by the Chinese authorities have made it possible to limit cheating and many counterfeit diplomas are detected by authentication procedures.
But allegations of a trade in diplomas intended for Chinese students at several French universities, if confirmed, would echo a widespread practice in China, where access to higher education is selective and a degree opens doors to a career.
The crackdown on counterfeiting may have driven the trade away from the city centres but in certain districts it is still easy to track down forgers.
In Beijing, they can be found in the suburbs.
Half an hour after taking a photograph and details, the forger returns with the requested diploma which costs between 200 and 300 yuan (29-44 dollars) for a bachelor's or master's degree, depending on the fame of the university, the seal of which is reproduced on the forgery.
This also includes report cards.
"I got a false diploma from the Beijing Commerce Institute in 2001 for 100 yuan," a young executive said.
"I had it after waiting for about 30 minutes in front of an alley where many migrant workers live."
But since the installation of computerised anti-fraud systems by the education ministry, provincial authorities and tertiary institutes, getting a government job with a forged diploma has become increasingly difficult.
A growing number of foreign companies and universities that welcome Chinese students also systematically check the authenticity of diplomas.
"All the papers are checked. You find about 3-4 percent of diplomas are forgeries" among prospective students wishing to study in France, according to a person involved in the university exchanges who asked not to be identified.
"Before 2003, you could buy a fake diploma on the street corner," the source said. In 2002, the education ministry estimated that at least 500,000 people had forged degrees.
Developed countries then began establishing procedures to check the authenticity of diplomas, the source added.
Li Ping, director of one of three departments at the education ministry in charge of certifying diplomas, said they were receiving increasing numbers of authentication requests, "especially from people who want to go abroad to continue their studies".
"Last year we had 30,000 requests, that's an increase of 54 percent," she said.
But most private companies still do not check the qualifications of would-be employees.
And in 2004, Chinese media reported on a fake Internet site to check counterfeit diplomas, with a domain name very close to that of the official sites.
There are also cases in China of real degrees being bestowed on false students.
It is not unheard of for civil servants whose career progress depends on a prestigious diploma, to use connections to register for a degree and graduate without ever attending the course.
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