Cheating in China
Image Credit: Julian Colton

Cheating in China

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According to a New York Times article last week, fraud is as familiar a fixture on Chinese campuses as gothic architecture is on American ones: 

‘Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation — has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. In December, a British journal that specializes in crystal formations announced that it was withdrawing more than 70 papers by Chinese authors whose research was of questionable originality or rigor.

‘In an editorial published earlier this year, The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a “research superpower” by 2020.’

Fraud has always been a problem in Chinese academia, and when US academics encounter it in China, they often respond with shock and disgust, as Yale professor Stephen Stearns did after teaching only one semester at Peking University, where he failed three of his students for plagiarism.

What particularly upset Stearns about the academic dishonesty he encountered in China was how little Chinese university administrators and professors seemed upset by it. 

Ten years ago, when I was working as the China correspondent for the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education, I reported on how a Peking University sociologist Wang Mingming was accused of plagiarizing from a US textbook, a case that ignited a firestorm in Chinese academia.

I interviewed many Chinese about the case, but for them it wasn’t a question of whether Wang Mingming was guilty, but who Wang had angered to get into trouble in the first place. (The story has a happy ending: Wang is still at Peking.) 

Americans like Stearns can’t be faulted for being angry at academic dishonesty. But just as they can’t understand why Chinese academics aren’t angry, many Chinese can’t see why foreign critics are so fired up either.

The fundamental issue is that while Stearns sees Peking as an academic institution, Chinese know that first and foremost Peking is a bureaucracy, and in many ways an extension of the Communist Party. (In fact, some say it’s more like a de facto government ministry.) And what matters in a bureaucracy are interpersonal relationships, which can be the antithesis of academic integrity.

But as Zhang Ming, a People’s University professor tells the New York Times: ‘We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit.’

The thing is, though, we tend to forget that it was only after World War II that US universities themselves became world-class research universities—only a century ago, they had the same academic reputation as, well, Chinese ones today. For example, US medical schools used to be unregulated diploma mills (they took anyone who would pay the tuition), producing doctors who did more harm than good. Then a handful of European-educated visionaries founded John Hopkins, and revolutionized medical research and education in the United States.  After World War II, the Ivy League transformed from being a set of party schools for American rich kids, into serious academic institutions.

Because many of the United States’ universities are private, they have the autonomy to choose to improve. But in China, higher education reform is directed from the top down by party officials rather than by academics. It was Jiang Zemin in 1998 who called for ‘world-class universities,’ and it was Hu Jintao who called for China to become a ‘research superpower’ by 2020.

Yet, as long as the Communist Party controls the universities, they’ll continue to be political bureaucracies where professors care more about serving the agenda of some bureaucrat and fraud and cheating will become even more pervasive ‘non-problems’.

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