SHENZHEN, China — On a heat-seared thoroughfare outside the five-story Shenzhen Book City, a dozen men are handing out tiny pink business cards to the pedestrians streaming past.
A short, slick man in his 20s beats out his swarming rivals to approach a visitor.
"Can I help you? What documents are you looking for?" asks the smiling man, who offers a card bearing the name Li Hua, of Southeast Asia Evidence (Group) Co.
After a bit of haggling, Li agrees to provide one of his products -- a top pedigree university diploma for 250 yuan, or $32.
The man calling himself Li is one of thousands of touts who haunt bookstores and university campuses throughout China, seeking customers eager to embellish their records with fake diplomas and other documents.
The competition for good jobs has made such counterfeiting a lucrative business -- and a headache for the government and universities. It appears to be thriving despite a government crackdown.
The widespread use of forged credentials has raised doubts in Western academic and business circles about the qualifications of Chinese students and job applicants.
It's also an embarrassment for Chinese universities striving for world-class status.
State-run Chinese news media reported that the national census in 2000 recorded at least 600,000 more college or university graduates than the actual number of degrees awarded.
Zhou Shaosen, Communist Party secretary at Nanjing University, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that a Shenzhen organization asked for authentication of four different styles of Nanjing University diplomas. All were fake.
The national government set up six centers around the country in May 2001 to verify college diplomas. The center in southern Guangdong province says about 800 of 3,500 certificates checked through last March proved bogus.
Among the best-known cases was a young farmer from eastern China's Anhui province who taught philosophy -- poorly -- at a Nanjing university for six months until he was discovered to have no master's degree after all.
Chinese media have carried numerous exposes of Communist Party officials who used counterfeit diplomas to advance their careers.
One was Hu Changqing, a former deputy governor of southeastern Jiangxi province, who was executed for taking bribes. He had claimed to hold two degrees -- one in law -- from prestigious Peking University. He actually had bought phony diplomas near the campus.
In April, police in Shanghai seized 100,000 copies of bogus licenses and certificates, and detained seven suspects in a bust authorities described as the biggest of its kind.
After a raid in Beijing, state television showed mounds of red stamps and computers used to make thousands of fake ID cards, passports and diplomas.
"All the documents a person needs from birth to death are here," a police officer told the Beijing Youth Daily.
One attempt to stamp out illegal sales of fake certificates backfired.
A Web site was set up to register legitimate university diplomas, but counterfeiters logged on and stole the details of graduates to use on fake certificates with new photos, the China Youth Daily reported.
Advances in technology mean you simply can't trust your eyes when looking at documents, says John Baxter, executive director of Hong Kong-based Quest Research Ltd., which helps multinational finance and technology companies carry out background checks on prospective employees.
"We would never even attempt to say if something is genuine or not just by looking at it," Baxter said.
"Anybody can scan somebody else's degree into the computer; they can just change the name and print it out. Or they can buy them on the streets of cities in China."
Out of hundreds of pre-employment screenings Quest Research does each year, about 5% turn out to include bogus diplomas, he says.
"It's not just in China," Baxter added. "It's in India; it's in every country."