Last week, Andrew Jacobs, Beijing correspondent for the New York Times, reported on what he calls “rampant fraud” here, with academia gaining much of the unwanted attention. No new phenomenon – Jacobs cites the Ministry of Education’s two previous attempts to combat fraud (2004 and 2006), but also states, “the two bodies [the Ministry] established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.”
Why would academic fraud be so rampant in the PRC, and why would campaigns to combat it fail? The article contains a sentence that reveals the root of the problem: “Liu Yandong, a powerful Politburo member who oversees Chinese publications, vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eager to inflate their publishing credentials.”
The fact that the Party has the sole authority to launch and close academic journals says a lot about what troubles academia in China. Party control extends also to curriculum, hiring and promotion of faculty and the contents of the various national examinations. In the local business school environment, we see the hand of orthodoxy in the curriculum, with courses such as “Maoist Thought and the Chinese-Characteristic Theory of Socialism” (毛泽东思想和中国特色社会主义理论体系概论) and “Scientific Socialism in Theory and Practice” (科学社会主义理论与实践) being required… in a business school!
Such rigid control has several pernicious effects:
– Faculty learn that they work in a system where orthodoxy and guanxi trump academic excellence and mitigate against independent intellectual development.
– The lack of independent academic bodies, and an independent judiciary to actually convict and mete out sentences, means that there’s only one game in town for academicians, one in which the proper reward/punishment systems that foster academic integrity in other countries don’t exist.
One hesitates to quote Ronald Reagan in adult company, but his statement that “government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem” seems apt in the case of academia in China.
These various pernicious effects, and the Party control that spawns them, are legacies of an especially totalitarian past. In the past three decades, the CPC has presided over what surely must be the most rapid deregulation in the history of any country in history. Its primary contribution to the phenomenal economic growth of these years has been to get out of the way and let the economy develop as its players deem best.
Hu Jintao has said that he wants China to become a “research superpower” within this decade. The way toward the goal is clear. It is a path already trodden by the Party in the wider economy, and it leads toward the sidelines of the playing field.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.