Governments and businesses around the world have been transfixed by China’s growth. The CIA’s World Factbook on the country (at least, the one we’re allowed to see) notes that since 1978, China’s economic reforms “and efficiency gains have contributed to a more than tenfold increase in GDP,” and that nearly $108 billion dollars of “foreign direct investment” flowed into the country in 2008 alone. With 46.3 percent of their workforce working in industry, China’s factories create everything from zippers to patio umbrellas, and even Santa Clauses.
China has global aims, and it’s achieving them with incredible success. But the Chinese government doesn’t want to simply create a country where hundreds of millions of people work in factories: President Hu Jintao pledged that China would be a “research superpower” by 2020—that the country would be recognized for its intellectual strength, and not just its economic muscle.
Despite these noble aims, a recent story in The New York Times documents the pervasive culture of academic and, sometimes, professional cheating. A troubling theme of the piece, by Andrew Jacobs, is that it doesn’t seem that the Chinese are very concerned with punishing fakers and cheaters. Jacobs mentions that a UK-based scientific journal was “withdrawing more than 70 papers by Chinese authors whose research was of questionable originality or rigor.” Later, Jacobs notes that a recent government studied indicated that “a third of the 6,000 scientists at six of the nation’s top institutions admitted they had engaged in plagiarism the outright fabrication of research data.”
The examples of falsified credentials are pretty worrying, particularly the 100 pilots who were found to have created their flying histories only after a plane crashed in Northeast China in August and killed 42 people. But again, the culture that protects and defends cheaters is a much more intractable, pernicious impediment to Chinese academic ascendancy. Jacobs notes that “when plagiarism is exposed, colleagues and school leaders often close ranks around the accused” because “few academics are clean enough to point a finger at others” and “plagiarizers often go unpunished.”
This isn’t just about letting the guilty walk, it’s about encouraging future bad behavior. Jacobs interviewed Fang Shimin, a journalist who runs the muckraking website New Threads and who provided a particularly poignant example of how the mixed messages China is sending its citizens. Shimin reported on Chen Jin, a “computer scientist who was once celebrated for having invented a sophisticated microprocessor but who, it turned out, had taken a chip made by Motorola, scratched out its name, and clamed it as its own.” Even though Chen lost his university post, he “was never prosecuted,” and he seems to have retained the “government largess and accolades” which he received for his ‘discovery.’ “When people see the accused still driving their flashy cars, it sends the wrong message,” said Shimin.
It certainly does, and it doesn’t look like the Chinese are making any real progress in sending the right message. Despite the Ministry of Education’s 2004 and 2006 antifraud campaigns, the two “bodies [the Ministry] established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.”
It’s really a matter of priorities. China has already made some tremendous gains. But if it wants to be a “research superpower,” and if it wants to be respected for its intellect as well as its drive, then it’s going to need to identify, condemn, and punish bad behavior in its students and teachers.