Class warfare

Plagiarism cases reach the pinnacle of Chinese politics


Under examination: Zhai Tianlin has admitted plagiarism

In 2017 when Springer, the publisher of science journal Tumor Biology, retracted 107 papers from Chinese researchers on concerns that their peer reviews might be fake, the Chinese government immediately announced a “zero tolerance” policy for academic fraud (see WiC367).

Two years on, have things improved? Perhaps not, or Premier Li Keqiang wouldn’t have needed to talk about stamping out similar practices in his opening speech at the Two Sessions parliamentary gathering this month (see WiC443).

“[We must] strengthen scientific research ethics and study attitudes, punish academic misconduct, and get rid of impetuousness,” Li said, in the first instance in which academic integrity was made an issue in his state-of-the-union address.

The trigger seemed to be a scandal at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy’s Performing Arts School in February, where Zhai Tianlin, an actor with a reputation as one of the best educated people in his profession, was found to have committed plagiarism.

The unravelling of his bonafides began with his announcement on weibo that he had been accepted into the post-doctoral research programme at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, following his graduation from the Beijing Film Academy with a doctoral degree last June. A weibo user then found that one of Zhai’s academic papers was 40% ‘similar’ to an article published in an academic journal in 2006. Zhai had offered it without any citations.

Netizens quickly linked the findings to a video back in August in which Zhai professed ignorance of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI). This was strange because the Tsinghua University-run database – containing academic journals, dissertations and other primary sources – is considered indispensable for research, even among undergraduates.

Soon Zhai was pleading guilty in an apology letter on weibo. “I was lost in vanity and believed that I could get lucky,” admitted the 32 year-old, who has appeared in 19 movies and 17 reality shows since 2014 when he kicked off his PhD, according to news portal Jiemian.

Zhai’s PhD at the film academy was revoked and Peking University expelled him from its postdoctoral programme, saying it would hold the admissions team at Guanghua School of Management accountable for lax enrolment.

“Angry netizens condemned not only the academic fraud, but also the damage done by renowned Chinese universities to fair education opportunities by opening a back door to the rich and powerful,” the Global Times added.

Other cases of academic fraud have taken longer to go public, after revelations from Agence France-Presse that six top Communist Party officials had been caught plagiarising portions of their master’s or doctorate dissertations.

Presumably the story was well-known in political circles inside China for a while, although it hadn’t made it past the censors into the public domain.

That’s because there were some very senior people on the list, including Li Yuanchao, a former vice-president of the People’s Republic; Xinjiang’s Party secretary Chen Quanguo (also a member of the Politburo); Supreme People’s Court vice president Zhang Shuyuan; and (rather deliciously) Xiao Xingwei, a senior official at the State Intellectual Property Office.

All these men worked part-time on their postgraduate degrees while holding public office, which must have kept them very busy. Chen’s day job, for instance, was as a senior official in Henan when he completed his doctoral thesis “Research on the Correlation between Human Capital Accumulation and Economic Development in Central China”. But at least 60 paragraphs in his work were identical to those in another paper published years earlier. Again, there were no citations, AFP reported, which said its findings were derived from plagiarism-detecting software.

Commentators said that growing pressure on politicians to hold more academic qualifications had pushed them into claiming others’ work as their own. “Official promotions began to depend on educational achievements. That created a widespread problem of fraudulent degrees,” Li Datong, a former editor at state-run newspaper the China Youth Daily, explained to the Financial Times.

On paper China’s politicians are some of the world’s best educated, the FT noted last month, with seven doctoral graduates on the 25-person Politburo that governs the country. That includes Xi Jinping, the president, who was awarded a doctorate in law by Beijing’s Tsinghua University in 2002.

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