July 2010

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By Susan D. Blum

Another revolution is afoot in China, and it might even be considered cultural. But this one is about academic culture, as China’s slow-moving iceberg floats up against the glacial mass of “international” (read: Western) principles. The fallout is fascinating for observers, though in some cases tragic for the participants.

In recent months Qinghua University professor Wang Hui has been attacked for having committed academic misconduct in his dissertation in the 1980s (see coverage at Global Voices Online, China Beat, and Xinhuanet). Centenary College in New Jersey has shuttered a graduate business program in China because so many of its students plagiarized. China Daily has an article about “Academic Corruption Undermining Higher Education.” Philip Altbach writes a blog post in Inside Higher Ed about “Academic Fraud and the Academic Culture in China—and Asia.” Faculty in US universities write distraught responses to all this, detailing how many of their Asian (not just Chinese) students commit academic fraud or plagiarism. The Economist takes on academic misconduct in China.

What is going on?

Is this a moral panic—a sudden focus on a concrete episode or bit of conduct representing an outlet for more generalized anxieties, often about social change?

Is this a case of genuine cultural difference, in which ideas of authorship and educational efficacy, authority and deference, differ between nations?

Is this a case of China-bashing, of Westerners seizing upon a misdeed and generalizing, gleefully, from the tendency of a few within China to act improperly?

Is this a case of many individuals knowingly violating accepted and proper norms?

The answer to all these questions should be obvious: It depends.

I’d like to begin by reminding you that “plagiarism” has at least two meanings, one of which is inadvertently omitting citation or reference to a source (or doing so imperfectly), and the other of which is deliberately incorporating material from another’s work and passing it off as one’s own, knowing that this will mislead readers. Students are more likely to commit the former, and professionals the latter. These two types of plagiarism might be considered more appropriately “improper citation” and “deliberate plagiarism, or fraud.” These two types of misdeeds should be treated with different types of responses; the first is best addressed through education. The second perhaps should be punished, though it rarely is.

China is in the midst of a great upheaval in terms of higher education and intellectual work in general. Now second only to the US, China’s scientific research productivity is on track to be the highest in the world (see this article at the New York Times and this “Room for Debate” discussion for more on the topic). Chinese attendance in higher education has risen from about 400,000 in 1978 to almost 4.5 million in 2004 (and more since then), in large part at private, not public, institutions. Many students are trying to get through their student years however they can, knowing—or at least hoping—that their career prospects will improve if they have a degree. (Credentialism leads to fraud and corner-cutting in education everywhere.)

The number of universities and colleges in China has increased, and the number of faculty has more than quadrupled. The pressure to publish is extraordinary, and many faculty are obliging.

But they may not be writing exactly as their Western colleagues do, and nowhere is that more evident than in citation practices.

As late as the 1990s, attribution and citation were rudimentary; a seminal book might be nodded to, and the works of Marx-Lenin-Mao would be cited out of self-protection. A scholarly book might have a dozen or so citations, and rarely a bibliography. The entire scholarly apparatus that Western/US scholars take for granted was missing. Footnotes were few (See Anthony Grafton, The Footnote, 1999). There was an assumption that 1) experts would have read the same material and would be familiar with it and 2) ownership of and credit for ideas was in some sense a bourgeois relic.

The “Western” notion of academic conduct is the momentary constellation of centuries of events, from the growth of higher education to the birth of the idea of the Romantic author and individuality that stems from the Renaissance and other events. It would be possible to imagine an entirely different way of valuing contributions to teaching and researching, but we take for granted that our way is the proper way. (Many scholars of intellectual property, language, and literature/art question the possibility of originality to the extent that our intellectual property laws express, but we approximate them nonetheless.)

Of course, whether our ideas of intellectual credit are arbitrary or culturally constructed or whatever, like all social contracts (think of marriage!), we are obliged follow them. (Except when people don’t, which also happens in the West, of course.)

There is another value at play here: the goal of attaining desired ends by any means possible. I have written about the tendency to focus on the outcome of speech, its consequences, more than on its absolute value as “true” or “false” (Lies that Bind, 2007). This is evident here as well: by writing something and publishing it, good things are achieved. That the material is “someone else’s” in a certain framework is irrelevant.

In the last ten but especially five years, China has decided to “compete” with the West in terms of academic stature and value. This has entailed increasing support for higher education and increasing standards for quality, not simply increasing quantity.

But as all writers have noted, it is much easier to increase quantity than quality.

Wang Hui may have incorporated other people’s works without interrupting the text for footnotes in the 1980s, when this was standard practice. I can’t weigh in on the claim that Wang Hui’s position as a public intellectual has made him a tempting McCarthy-esque target.

But what I can say is that the times they are a-changin’ (that is a reference to Bob Dylan’s song from 1963/1964; it can be found here. But citing a popular song seems excessive, doesn’t it?). China is between several paradigms: one that says citation and attribution are optional; one that says winning is China’s or the individual’s right and imperative; and one that says intellectual work must be traced and credited.

Like all cultural change, there are winners, victims, casualties, and much righteous waving of slogans and placards, charging others with moral laxity and venal duplicity. Sometimes the accusations are apt; sometimes they are fabricated; sometimes they harbor old grudges; and sometimes those with plenty of sin cast stones.

Accusing someone of not following rules when they were not in play is absurd. Ignoring the shared rules that everyone has subsequently agreed to is a violation of convention. Scholars in China are slowly signing on, in their hearts and minds, to that slate of conventions. But like all cultural revolutions, we’ll find ambiguity and complexity enough to keep us busy analyzing for years.

Susan D. Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and the author, most recently, of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009).


A Critical Reading of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013

By Zhansui Yu

Shengshi coverChinese, following Chairman Mao’s famous phrase, tend to use the expression “like a fire burning in the wilderness” [燎原之火 liaoyuan zhi huo] to describe the unexpected rise and popularity of something marginalized or rebellious. Since the literary explosion in the years immediately after Mao’s death, mainland Chinese literary circles have rarely witnessed such a “wild fire.” Recently, however, a fierce literary “fire” suddenly broke out and shocked the entire Chinese intellectual world. The spark that ignited this fire is Chan Koon-chung’s 陈冠中 political novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 [盛世:中国 2013]. [1]

The novel is set against the surreal background of the year 2013, when China reaches the peak of its prosperity, and the whole nation’s people—except for a few—suddenly contract “collective amnesia.” That is, a month-long period has been erased from the memory of the entire population, and all are intoxicated with the feeling of happiness. The book is divided into two parts. Part one introduces the main characters, focusing on their personal experiences and fates in the ever-changing political surges. Part two tells the story of how Fang Caodi 方草地, one of several people who inexplicably have memories of the terrifying lost month, and the Taiwanese writer Old Chen 老陈 together cross half of China’s territory to look for Little Xi 小希, who is both a potential witness to the lost month and Old Chen’s true love. During their long journey in search of Little Xi, the true face of a China with astonishing darkness behind its dazzling material prosperity unfolds before the two men. The story culminates with the truth-seekers kidnapping a high-ranking Chinese official named He Dongsheng 何东生, who is forced to tell the truth of the lost month. After learning that the Chinese “golden age” is achieved by cunning, deception, and terror, the characters decide to permanently leave this “prosperous, powerful, and happy” China.

It has become quite clear that the success of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 lies mainly in its political nature. What makes the novel unique is that it represents the first Chinese political novel which deals with the fundamental principles of the so-called “Chinese model of development” in a critical way. The intellectual strength of the novel can be summarized as follows: It exposes three problems, reveals three reasons, and raises three questions regarding the “Chinese model of development.”

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Earlier this month, we ran an opinion piece by Peter Zarrow concerning the plagiarism accusations against Tsinghua University Professor Wang Hui, in which Dr. Zarrow explained why he had signed a letter of support organized by international scholars and sent to Tsinghua’s president. The essay was picked up and circulated by the MCLC listserv, where it generated a number of comments. One of the responses came from Michelle Yeh of UC Davis, and we asked Dr. Yeh if she would expand her remarks and share them with China Beat readers. She has done so in the essay below, and also provided a Chinese translation.

We welcome additional comments on this continuing matter. Short opinion pieces can be submitted by e-mail to thechinabeat[at]gmail[dot]com.

By Michelle Yeh

To be accused of plagiarism is a serious matter. To accuse someone of plagiarism is just as serious. When I catch a student plagiarize (which, unfortunately, has occurred a few times in my career), I turn the case over to the student judiciary affairs office at my university with supporting evidence. The office investigates it, holds a meeting with the student, reaches a conclusion and metes out punishment based on university policy. Although I have never personally witnessed a plagiarism case involving a professor, I would imagine that the procedure would be more or less the same. After all, we as professors not only expect our students to follow the rules, but we as tacit role models also have an obligation to do likewise.

That’s why when the plagiarism charge Professor Wang Binbin 王彬彬 initially made against Professor Wang Hui 汪晖 in March has turned into a protracted debate and controversy, I wonder what’s going on. Did the accuser present plausible evidence? If the answer is affirmative, why wasn’t it investigated right away by Tsinghua University, where Professor Wang Hui is employed? If the answer is negative, why wasn’t the case thrown out immediately, and why wasn’t Professor Wang Binbin subjected to investigation by the appropriate authority?

As a concerned observer, I read the letter signed by “more than eighty international scholars” that was submitted to the president of Tsinghua University on June 9th, as posted on Sciencenet. I also read the letter on Global Voices Online which had gone out previously to solicit “endorsements” from scholars outside mainland China. (Apparently, scholars in Hong Kong were considered “international” too, since several are among the signatories.) [Editor's note: the solicitation letter is posted by Oiwan Lam in the comment section of the page linked to above.]

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We were amused to see that the most recent Sinica podcast was ominously titled “Death of the China Blog,” since here at China Beat we feel very much alive. To our relief, however, the discussion (among host Kaiser Kuo, Imagethief’s Will Moss, and Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn — who was good enough to do an interview with us last month) ended with the happy conclusion that while the China blogosphere has changed quite a bit in the past few years, it’s still going strong. We heartily agree.

We are sad to see one blog we’ve grown quite attached to go on hiatus for a bit: over at Six, Alec Ash has announced that he’s taking a break and will reinvent and relaunch his site in the coming months. Fortunately, we can still follow Alec’s writings in other venues, as he has a piece on China’s young climate-change activists at The Economist, as well as an article in Prospect magazine about foreign students in China (available to subscribers only).

Though the Sinica podcasters discussed only the English-language China blog scene, we’ve also become aware of a couple non-English blogs that we’ve begun following, and with the improved quality of Google Translate, fluency in a foreign language isn’t required to read them. In Italian, check out Cineresie; for Spanish-language China news, head over to ZaiChina.

So, it doesn’t seem that the time has come yet to proclaim the death of the China blog, but tune in to the Sinica podcast for a lively and well-informed discussion of the great China blogs on the web today. We’re happy to say that we heard some kind words about China Beat, and very much return the sentiment — these Sinica podcasts have quickly become one of our weekly “must-listens.”


Karl Mao coverBy Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Some time back, I did a Q-and-A with Rebecca Karl about her forthcoming trade book on Mao. Now that its publication date is drawing near, I decided to do a short follow-up and she was good enough to oblige once again by answering a few questions:

JW: I see from Amazon.com that the cover for your book is up there and that some sample pages are also available for browsing. When exactly will the book be available?

RK: Duke University Press is sending me advance copies at the end of July; that means the book should be available for purchase by mid-August, at the latest.

JW: Is there anything you can tell us about how the cover fits in with or reflects the arguments in the book or differs from the kinds of representations of Mao on other recent books?

RK: I asked the designer specifically not to have a red cover, and not to have a picture of Mao that everyone associates with the apogee of his rule (the Mao kitsch version). Those are features of most covers for books on Mao. I wanted a picture of Mao in transition to becoming Mao. That is because one major argument of the book is that Mao, rather than just being born Mao, became who and what he was in history — in interaction with his local and global environment and with the challenges he and his comrades faced. To convey this historical process, I originally bought in the Shanghai Cultural Revolution museum a woodcut print of a contemplative Mao from 1938, holding a calligraphy brush and gazing out a window towards some mountains. It depicts a peaceful and calm Mao, although to my eye, it also conveyed a sense of Mao’s contemplation in tension with the mountains beyond. I submitted that to the Press as my desired cover art. It turns out that I have absolutely no sense of graphic design: the image was awful for a book cover. It felt dead and lifeless. Heather Hensley, my cover designer, tried her level and gifted best with it, but there was nothing she could do to make it work. Instead, she found a picture of a youngish-looking Mao running a meeting in Yan’an (the 1930s Communist base area) during the War of Resistance against Japan (what in the US is called the Pacific War portion of WWII). This is a moment when Mao and China are transformed, so it is perfect to depict the active argument of the book. The subdued but powerful color scheme was Heather’s idea, and I like it immensely: it contrasts with and yet gives life to Mao’s gesticulations; it also evokes the sense of an old photograph (which it is!).

JW: And if you don’t mind a slightly off-the-wall question, any thoughts to share with our readers on the recent flurry of attention to the relevance of Mao’s thought for being a successful manager or entrepreneur a la this recent China Daily story?

RK: As I write in the preface to the book, when I first began to teach a course on Mao at NYU in 2005, I found my classes filled with undergraduate business majors, who wanted to learn about “guerrilla marketing”, which they’d been taught derived from Mao’s theories of guerilla warfare. I assured them they would learn nothing about marketing from me, although they’d learn a lot about Chinese history and Mao Zedong. The attempt to “apply” Mao to managerial tasks and capitalist marketing are hilarious to me — he was as anti-managerial and anti-capitalist as it comes! — but it is surely a symptom of our times. So the question is not off-the-wall, but rather precisely a-propos!

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