Academic Integrity Under Fire in China Scandals

Two recent scandals in China have generated heated debates online about integrity and honesty in both academia and the corporate world. First, former chairman of Microsoft China, Tang Jun, has been under fire for allegedly lying about his academic credentials in his autobiography and in various interviews. People’s Daily reports:


Jun Tang, former CEO of Microsoft Greater China Region, allegedly falsified in his autobiography, My Success Can Be Copied, that he had received a doctorate diploma from the computer science department of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1990.

But there were no records of Tang’s graduation or dissertation in Caltech’s database, said Fang Zhouzi, known for his efforts in fighting plagiarism and academic fraud in China, writing in his microblog at t.sina.com.cn/fangzhouzi.

Tang, however, fought back with a copy of the book’s first edition printed in May 2009 in which he did not claim to have such a diploma. But in many electronic versions of the book, available online, it is written “I was awarded the doctorate diploma from California Institute of Technology”.

“I know nothing about the electronic versions,” he said.

Equally damaging are video clips spreading online of Tang, during a TV interview, saying he had received a doctorate diploma from Caltech.

ESWN posted various materials about the controversy, including an interview with Tang on CRI:

Q: The first question from popular scientist Fang Zhouzi is that Jun Tang claimed to have a doctoral degree from CalTech, but the list of alumni does not include the name Jun Tang. No person of Chinese descent had obtained a computer science PhD before 2001 and no one named Tang has obtained one since. There is also no entry for anyone named Jun Tang in the American database of doctoral theses. How do you respond?
A: I have never stated at any time in any situation (including in my book) that I hold a doctoral degree from the California Institute of Technology. I have spend a certain amount of time doing research at CalTech and I have obtained a doctoral degree. But I do not have a CalTech PhD.

Q: So from which American university did you obtain your doctorate?
A: I spent five years studying for a doctoral degree in Japan but I gave up my thesis defense in order to go to America. When I arrived in America, I explored how I could turn a thesis into a doctoral degree at various universities. Eventually, I conducted some research at the private Pacific Western University and obtained a doctoral degree. I have documents for all that.

The ensuing online uproar debated the role of honesty in becoming financially successful in China today. chinaSMACK translated various netizen comments from both sides of the Tang Jun affair. China Daily chimed in on the debate in an opinion piece:

Tang may soon realize that people are not so outraged at his faked educational background – a mistake he made years ago – as they are by his continued refusal to speak the truth.

In a society where academic degrees are faked and bought by a large number of officials and businessmen, Tang may well ask: “Why me?”

The answer is clear: The wrongs of many others do not justify his misdeed. This is especially true of someone who likes to portray himself as a role model for aspiring youngsters.

Tang’s case is shocking. Equally astounding is the rationale offered by some of Tang’s supporters, who argue that it is fine for him to make such a mistake as long as his admirable business success is real.

This is a reflection of moral degradation in our society, where integrity often trumps economic interests in judging individuals.

The Veggie Discourse blog, meanwhile, argues that Tang is likely to escape relatively unscathed from this scandal because Chinese society holds different standards of integrity for the rich and powerful and for common folk:

Luckily, Chinese are a very self-conflicting breed. They are extremely utilitarian and pragmatic, yet they can be as innocent as the Puritans. They respect xiaoxiong (枭雄, a fierce and ambitious person; for example, Cao Cao and Napoleon; Hitler also qualifies). Even if the success came through illegal and dishonest means, these xiaoxiong will be praised as “skilled” and “knowing the ways”. At the same time, Chinese impose harsh standards on mainstream heroes, who must exhibit almost perfect morality, for there is zero tolerance for any small defect. Tang Jun is a xiaoxiong pretending to be a hero, so the only force that can cause damage to him is morality: the issue of integrity cannot be circumvented, and it is the only point on which his attackers have a stand.

For more on Tang Jun, see: “China: ‘Fraud cop’ accuses IT bigwig, legal action threatened” from Global Voices; “Tang Jun’s Diploma Problems: Success vs. Honesty” from china/dividel; “Former Microsoft chief Tang Jun fights back” from People’s Daily.

Meanwhile, in academic circles, a debate is underway over the academic integrity of leftist scholar Wang Hui after he was accused of plagiarism by a fellow academic. Global Times reports:

Earlier this year, a professor of Chinese Literature at the Nanjing University, Wang Binbin accused Wang Hui, a professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University, of plagiarism in his book In the Fight for Desperation .

Wang Binbin’s accusation was backed by more evidence of plagiarism found by Xiang Yihua, a researcher with the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences, and two online commentators.

Wang Binbin later accused Wang Hui of plagiarism in another book, The Rising of Contemporary Chinese Thoughts.

The accusations have given rise to heated discussion among scholars in China and abroad.

Well-known scholars in China, including Xiong Bingqi, Lin Yusheng and Yi Zhongtian, have previously expressed their wish for an “academic investigation” into the case.

Global Voices Online reports that a number of foreign scholars have penned a letter expressing support for Wang:

While Wang Hui kept silent and expected the matter to be “clarified within the academic community”, many scholars and public intellectuals have commented on the issue via local media outlets. Some defended Wang Hui; some pointed out that the dilemma is one of non-standard citation rather than of intentional plagiarism; some have suggested a thorough investigation be led by an independent academic committee. The whole debate has mainly taken place within the local academic circle and online public sphere until very recently (July 7) when a local media outlet (ifeng.com) disclosed a joint letter signed by “an international community of scholars, translators, editors, historians and cultural critics” in support of Wang Hui.

The open letter, signed by many prominent western scholars such as Tani Barlow, Arif Dirlik, Gayatri C. Spivak and Frederic Jameson, frames the plagiarism charge as an “attack from the popular media in China” and defends Wang Hui’s academic integrity:

The charges have been contested and discredited in the careful analyses given by Zhong Biao, Shu Wei, Wei Xing and others. Among the signatories to this letter are also translators and they are without doubt closest to the work of Wang Hui.  Each translator has checked and double checked all the footnotes in the vast bibliographies of Professor Wang’s publications over the last thirty years.  None has found any indication of plagiarism no matter how loosely this word is defined.

Second, among us are many Asia specialists in Chinese studies and we attest to Professor Wang’s scholarly integrity and his importance in international Asian studies.

More background information on the case are available  from Granite Studio and ChinaGeeks.

Read more about academic ethics and plagiarism via CDT.

July 15, 2010 7:39 AM
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Categories: CDT Highlights, Society