I recently read this NYT article on missing student records and became infuriated.  In short, the article is about recent graduates from various universities, who came from poor families, worked incredibly hard to set the foundations for their futures, only to find that their entire academic records (high school grades, college grades, test scores, proof of graduation, etc) had vanished.  Many of the students and their families blame local officials for the missing files, saying that the Manila envelopes containing basically their entire lives had been stolen and sold to affluent students with much lower academy integrity.

What I take issue with isn’t the fact that corrupt officials have carelessly ruined these students’ lives for a quick payday (even though it sucks, there are shitty people everywhere).

Nor is it this section of the article:

The government’s answer, they said, was to reject any inquiry, place the graduates’ parents under police surveillance and repeatedly detain them. Last February, they said, five parents trying to petition the national government were locked in an unofficial jail in Beijing for nine days.

It may be insensitive on my part, but I’ve been in China for far too long to find this new or surprising or even all that interesting.  It’s just sad on multiple levels.

No, I take issue with two words.  Two words which seem to be the underlying cause of this entire issue: Manila envelopes.

Everyone in China who has been to high school has such a file. The files are irreplaceable histories of achievement and failure, the starting point for potential employers, government officials and others judging an individual’s worth. Often keys to the future, they are locked tight in government, school or workplace cabinets to eliminate any chance they might vanish.

Now, if I may be so bold, let me solve this problem with one word:  computers.

Computers exist in China, I’ve seen them (I’m also pretty sure most computers are even made here).  Chinese universities have computers, I’ve seen those, too.  Hell, I’ve even seen people use them.  There is absolutely no reason for vigilant, hardworking students to lose everything they’ve worked for because of some unnecessary need to have their records in a physical form.

I realize that there might be some antiquated, paranoid computer haters that might say that the Manila envelopes contain irreplaceable, signed documents by teachers, fellow students, and others; again, my answer can also be narrowed down to a single word: scanners.  Scan it, watermark it, make it read-only, encrypt it.  Boom!  Your irreplaceable documents just became replaceable.  File stolen?  Replaced.  Fire damage?  Replaced.  File missing?  Replaced.  Panda mistakes file for bamboo?  Replaced.

There are people at Chinese universities that can handle the technologically difficult tasks of typing information into a computer and scanning documents.  At my own university, the technical staff just installed new restrictions on the network that keep me from visiting morally the degrading and pornographic sites Wonkette.com and NPR.org, respectively.  Surely my I.T. guys and those at any university could use their computer powers for good, for example, by setting up a password protected database for the students’ grades at the very least as a backup in case the physical file disappears.

Sure, if some evil, greedy official wanted to access such files for his or her own personal gain, he or she could probably find a way to do so (evil officials are crafty that way).  But, by being able to gain access to such files, it can be assumed that said evil official would also know how to hit CTRL+C, thus copying the information without destroying the futures of the students who actually gave a shit.


  1. Are you serious? Clearly the problem here is systemic and cultural, not technological. I suspect that storing student profiles digitally will make it easier for this and other kinds of fraud to happen in the future.

  2. This is a systemic and cultural problem, you’re right. But it has a technological answer. Obviously, I’m not saying that student profiles should just be put on in an excel spreadsheet and put under C:/Student Grades (and I’m also not saying that the files should be this hard to access).

    Setting up multi-user account systems isn’t something new. In fact most schools and offices probably already have some system in place, and it’s built into Windows. I.T. Administrators have record of who logs in, logs out and what each person can access.

    With such security and transparency, having the files digitized would actually make them harder to access. Tampering with them would certainly be harder than sneaking into an office in the middle of the night and stealing an envelope.

  3. Absolutely. Digital footprints, at the very least, would make the Luddite fraudsters think twice. My scholastic records have been digitized for more than 2 decades… it’s foolish that someone’s entire educational history can disappear with an envelope.

  4. I think that your solution will be effectively implemented in reality around the time that government offices in China start using/accepting digital photos of people to use for visa/ID purposes.

    Given that (again) digital cameras are cheap, made in China, and frequently used by most Chinese people, why not have one installed in government offices to take real-time pictures of applicants for various jobs?

    (I concede that it might be a damning blow to smaller neighborhood photo-printing/photocopy shops).

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