Wang Hui

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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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By Peter Zarrow

Wang Hui is a cultural historian and critic, and professor at Qinghua University in Beijing. He was for several years editor of Dushu, a serious general interest magazine perhaps roughly — very roughly — equivalent to the Atlantic monthly in the US. He is also known as a leader of the so-called “New Left” intellectuals, who highlight the costs of economic liberalization, global capitalism, and rigid Western-style modernization policies. Early this year, charges of plagiarism began to appear concerning some of some of Wang Hui’s work. He has since been subject to numerous attacks, including ad hominen blog attacks.

This month I signed a letter/petition that was organized by several Western scholars who know Wang Hui and his work. The letter was sent to Qinghua University and defends Wang Hui’s “scholarly integrity.”

This week I received an email from somebody whose name I didn’t recognize. This person asked if I was aware that my name was on a letter of support for Wang Hui in his plagiarism case, and forthrightly asked, “How would you know if Wang did plagiarize or not?”

Good question, but it is not the main issue to me. Our letter does not, technically, state that its signers are sure Wang did not commit plagiarism. What it says is that those “charges have been contested and discredited” and that his translators in the West and Japan have “never found any indication of plagiarism no matter how loosely this word is defined.” Granted, this does come close to categorically denying the plagiarism charges — but not quite.

What follows are my opinions alone, and I do not speak for any of the organizers or other signatories of the letter to Qinghua. Much of the discussion of the case, especially but not only in the West, has dealt with the academic-political context, and suggests that the “real reason” Wang Hui came under attack was his political opinions. I do not know enough about Chinese academic politics to have an opinion on that issue; my concerns are simply about “due process” and the essential ambiguity of plagiarism.

For me, as a wishy-washy liberal, the issue is that Wang Hui should not become victim of an academic witch-hunt. Or to switch metaphors, judging from my browsing of the internet, I do not want to see web lynching or a media circus. There is something truly weird about many of the attacks. I am not sure whether Wang Hui has ever committed “plagiarism.”

So what is to be done? Plagiarism charges are serious and should be investigated by impartial scholars familiar with the materials. In the United States, in my profession, the American Historical Association has conducted such investigations through its Professional Division.

For the record, I have met Wang Hui briefly, on one occasion at a conference. About two years ago, I began reading his 4-volume Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi (2004) to my considerable gain and occasional befuddlement. I have not read his earlier work on Lu Xun, which is the main target of the plagiarism charges. One of my colleagues alerted me to the plagiarism debate when it began popping up on Chinese websites, so I have been following it for some time.  (My colleague and I have also discussed why, of all the substantial work being done in China today, Wang Hui’s should have attracted unique attention in the West. Doubtless this has to do with scholarly trends, academic fads, personal relations — issues beyond the scope of this piece.)

It’s always fun to play academic “gotcha,” and indeed we scholars collectively rely on our mutual surveillance system to weed out bad work. This highlighting of the issue of plagiarism may have good effects in China in the long run. On the other hand, our letter to Qinghua has already provoked a reaction on some Chinese blogs that I would call defensive parochialism. Who are these foreigners to interfere in a Chinese affair? Why are they covering up Wang Hui’s “crimes”?

But it is important to keep some perspective. Our letter to Qinghua does not oppose calls for an investigation. It notes our belief in the essential importance (and, yes, “integrity”) of Wang Hui’s work and decries the way charges and enemies’ lists are proliferating.

I have read Wang Binbin’s original article, which shows that several paragraphs of Wang Hui’s dissertation on Lu Xun were copied/paraphrased from Western theoretical works with at most a vague “See X” kind of citation. I have seen less-documented charges of plagiarism concerning some of Wang’s other works. My understanding is that the publications that printed Wang Binbin’s article did not ask Wang Hui for a response; if this is the case, it would seem to be a lapse of professional standards on their part.

In historical perspective, if I may digress as a historian, Chinese scholarship has consisted of nothing so much as what we today call plagiarism. It advanced by the battle of the unattributed quotation. Quotation vs. quotation: one’s own position was revealed by the classical and post-classical quotations one chose to repeat, chose to neglect, and tweaked slightly. One’s interlocutors, being equally well educated, didn’t need to be guided to the source. Among modern intellectuals, my hero Liang Qichao was perhaps the greatest plagiarist of them all.

The point? To put it a bit simply, vague standards of what constituted plagiarism existed at least through the 1980s, when Wang Hui was writing his dissertation. Now, even Wang’s most die-hard supporters admit he was guilty of sloppy footnoting. I can further see the case of calling it plagiarism — depending on what you mean by that term. What Wang apparently did leaves me distinctly uncomfortable. I am not prepared to see him purely as a victim (not yet, anyway).

But I am not prepared to say, with some scholars, that Wang Hui absolutely committed the academic crime of plagiarism. Nor am I prepared to say, with other of my colleagues, that he certainly did not. In the absence of a real investigation, I am ready to conclude that size does matter. A few paragraphs at the beginning of a vastly productive career need to be understood in context.

One question I have asked myself is, suppose this were a case of a Western scholar at a Western institution. It is discovered s/he translated several paragraphs from another language in his/her dissertation and — sort of — seemed to write as if they were his/her own words. He or she is a tenured member of the faculty at a prestigious university with a rich record of publishing in their academic field and outside of it as well. Yes, now what? In American Historical Association investigations of plagiarism charges, there were real consequences: some people lost their jobs and some publications were withdrawn, but only after the texts in questions were literally laid out side by side. And some people were cleared. One good feature of the AHA’s Professional Division that Chinese might pay attention to, is that it was not an ad hoc committee set up for any particular case but was prepared to investigate any charges brought to it on the basis of clearly-written standards.

Pending a fair investigation of these charges, I’m prepared to leap to a wishy-washy conclusion on the basis of the limited evidence I’ve seen. If Wang Hui committed plagiarism in several paragraphs in an old piece of writing, let’s publicly humiliate him. OK, job accomplished. But let’s also note that he has written a great deal of undoubtedly original and thought-provoking scholarship since then. If the university and professional authorities in China can organize an open and transparent investigation based on hard evidence, more power to them. In the meantime, I’m moving on.

Peter Zarrow is a historian at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica. His work focuses on modern China and he is the author, most recently, of China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949 (Routledge, 2005).


Wang Hui coverWhen the Association for Asian Studies meets in Philadelphia later this week, one of the keynote speakers will be Tsinghua University professor and noted public intellectual Wang Hui, whose talk on Saturday evening is free and open to the public. A former editor of Dushu (“Reading”), Wang’s writings include China’s New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition (Harvard, 2003), as well as a recently released collection of essays, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (Verso, 2009). Here, we are pleased to share with China Beat readers an excerpt from the English edition introduction of The End of the Revolution.

The paradox of the statification of the party

Discussions of the state are directly related to questions about the formation of democratic mechanisms. There is one basic paradox one must face, which is that, on the one hand, China’s ability to govern effectively has been widely acknowledged in comparison with the governments of many other countries, from its disaster relief mobilization after the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake to its rapid response in initiating a bailout plan after the financial meltdown, and from its successful management of the Olympic Games to the efficacy of its various local governments in organizational development and controlling the crisis. But on the other hand, contradictions have appeared between officials and the people in certain areas, and have become sharp at certain times, with the administrative abilities and levels of honesty of different levels of government having come into question. The key issue is that such contradictions are often blown up into large-scale and widely debated legitimacy crises. By observing the situation in other countries, we can see that an institutional political crisis may not result even if the capacity of the state declines, the government accomplishes nothing, the economy is in recession and social policies remain unimplemented. This issue is closely connected with democracy as the source of political legitimacy.

In the 1980s, the democratic question was fairly simple. The wave of democratization had been building over twenty years, and on the one hand, democracy remained the most important source of political legitimacy. But on the other hand, the method of simply imitating Western democracy had lost the attraction it had possessed in Asia in the 1980s. In the wake of the crises in the emerging democracies and the fading of the “color revolutions” after 1989, the tendency toward democratization began to decline in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and other regions. At the same time, the formation of a democratic cavity in the democratic nations of Western society and in the Third World (for instance India) is creating a universal democratic crisis, one closely connected to the conditions of marketization and globalization. For one, the dominant forms of the post-war political democracies were multi-party or two-party parliamentary systems, but under market conditions, political parties are becoming less representative each day than they were in the early days of democracy. In the drive to attract votes, the political values of the parties are gradually becoming obscured, so that the representative system of democracy exists now in name only. Second, the connection between democracy and states is also being threatened under the condition of globalization: as economic relations gradually exceed the traditional categorizations of national economies, and as its related activities become difficult to balance within the confines of a single country, the political plans of any country are forced to adjust to the international system. Third, in some countries, the shift toward oligarchical forms and the consolidation of special interests in political parties has resulted in the gradual disconnection of democracy as a political structure from the basic units of society. The interests and needs of the lower strata find no expression within the political sphere. As a result, they resort to a self-defensive anarchy (i.e. the rise of Maoism in India). Fourth, the reliance of the election process on large amounts of money and financial resources has resulted in the existence of both legal and illegal forms of election fraud in many democratic countries, thus destroying public confidence in the election process. This is not to say that democratic values are dead. The real question is what kind of democracy do we need and what form should it take. How do we make democracy something more than an empty form, into something with substantive meaning?

The Chinese political system has also undergone significant transformations, including a change in the role of the party. In the 1980s, the primary goal of political reform was the separation of the party from the state, but after the 1990s, this grew out of favor as a popular slogan, so that the government and party intersected more frequently in concrete practice and institutional arrangements. I interpret this phenomenon to be part of the shift toward party stratification, and it is worth analyzing why this tendency arose. According to traditional political theories, the party represents the will of the people—through parliamentary struggles and debates, or through procedural democracy—to become state and public will, and even the expression of sovereignty. In China, the multiparty cooperation system, under which eight other democratic parties are led by the ruling Communist Party and are also involved in state affairs, is built upon multi-party representation. But under market society conditions, state apparatuses are directly involved in economic activity, and the various branches of the state become entangled with special interests. This infiltration of the state by the party is not a new phenomenon — the primary issue faced during Mao Zedong’s time was not simply the bureaucratization of the state but also the bureaucratization of the party — but its intense permeation of the state under market society conditions is new. What was called the “neutral state” in the early years of reform is now undergoing a transformation. Because the party remains relatively disconnected from economic activity, it is able to express the will of society with relative independence and “neutrality.” The weeding out of corruption, for instance, is largely reliant upon effective implementation by party mechanisms. After the 1990s, the will of the state was presented primarily through the goals and slogans of the party, including the “Three Represents,” the “Harmonious Society” and the “Scientific Outlook on Development,” but these were no longer direct and special expressions of the party but instead directly invoked the interests of the entire people. In this sense, the party has become the core of public sovereignty.

However, the statification of the party also involves a dual challenge. For one, if the division between the party and the state vanishes entirely, then what forces or mechanisms can prevent the party from becoming trapped within the relations of interest of market society, as the state has? Second, the universal representation of the traditional party (and the “neutrality” of the early socialist state) was built on its clear political values. The statification of the party will mean a weakening and transformation of the party’s political values, so that if the achievement of a “neutral state” is closely connected to the political values of the party, then what apparatuses can enable China to maintain its broad representation of interests under these new conditions? What force can the party rely upon for self renewal, and how might the voices of the common people find expression in the public sphere? What is required to initiate change in the basic lines and policies of the state and party, through true freedom of speech, venues of negotiation and continuous interaction between officials and the people? How can we attract and consolidate international and domestic forces on a wide scale to achieve the most widespread democracy? These questions cannot be avoided in discussing the self-renewal of the party.

These are also questions we need to consider in thinking about China’s political transformation, alongside the question of China’s democratic road. Specifically, I think there are at least three aspects we need to consider. First, China experienced a long and profound revolution in the twentieth century, so that Chinese society retains an acute sensitivity toward the demands of fairness and social equality. How should these historical and political traditions be translated into democratic demands under contemporary conditions? In other words, what is the mass line or the popular democracy of this new era? Second, the Chinese Communist Party is massive and has experienced significant changes, becoming more entangled with state apparatuses with each day. How can this party system become more democratic, and how can the state’s ability to represent the universal interest be preserved while the role of the party is being transformed? Third, how can a new political form be constructed upon the social base, granting greater political capacity to mass society and thereby overcoming the condition of “depoliticization” created through neoliberalism’s marketization? These questions have bred further important, theoretical lines of inquiry, including: under conditions of globalization of marketization, in what political direction will the PRC move towards?How can a dialectic of increased self-reliance and increased opening up be forged in Chinese society? This “self-reliance” does not refer to nationalistic or ethnocentric tendencies but rather the reestablishment of values and politics along different lines—if anything, it is a new internationalism. The global significance of this exploration should be obvious given the universal crisis of democracy and market.

The 1990s are over. This post-1989 process has shown signs in the past few years that it has already reached its end, but the year 2008 has provided the clearest signs of all. Globally, neoliberalism’s economic path has been hit by a massive crisis, while in China this became evident through a series of events: from the March 14 Tibet Incident to the Wenchuan earthquake, from the Beijing Olympics to the financial crisis, Chinese society has come to understand its own global position in a different way. In Western societies, discussions regarding China’s rise have been conducted for quite some time, but amid the crisis, people suddenly realized that China was an economy to be reckoned with, second only to the US. Its rise has occurred more quickly than had been predicted, expressed in a corresponding level of self-confidence. This change was dramatic and some of its elements were coincidental, though not accidental. The issue may be that China is still scrambling to adjust to its new international identity. The contradictions that have accumulated in Chinese society during the process of marketization and the dangers it now faces as a result of globalization are both unprecedented. Whether we are talking about the so-called “end of the 90s” or analyzing the “end of the revolution,” the real goal is to clarify the situation we face, and to question and to formulate a new politics, a new path in a new direction. This “end” is not an end in the Hegelian sense but rather the will to break with the past and the desire to construct a new politics. It is from here that we must look back upon the revolutionary inheritance of the twentieth century.