Wang Hui and Plagiarism in Chinese Academia

The Case of Wang Hui and Wang Binbin

Readers of the excellent Granite Studio will already know about the high-profile plagiarism case that has been receiving a lot of attention in Chinese academic circles. The basics of the case are fairly simple (from Granite Studio):

“Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin charges that Wang Hui’s dissertation on Lu Xun, 《反抗绝望》(fankang juewang), published in 1985 when he was a doctoral student at Nanjing University and later the basis of a book published in the early 1990s, contains several passages lifted from other works and used without citation.”

The reason this is significant is that Wang Hui is a noted public intellectual leader in the “New Left” movement, which Granite Studio also has a great post about. His work on Lu Xun is widely regarded, and he has held a number of prominent positions (he currently holds a professorship at Tsinghua and is a former editor of the well-respected journal Dushu). Some have alleged that this attack on Wang Hui is thus an attack on the “New Left” and an attempt to discredit a man who has repeatedly criticized the Party. In an interview with the Nandu Daily, Wang Hui’s accuser Wang Binbin defended himself:

Nandu Daily Reporter: On the internet, some have been suspicious of your motives […] If we ask you to concede a bit, aren’t there potential conflicts between you and Wang Hui in terms of schools [of thought] and interest>
Wang Binbin: What “schools”? What “interests”? This is purely people wanting to stir the water. I have no direct or indirect conflicts of personal interest with Wang Hui.

Wang Hui
Academics have leapt to Wang’s defense. First was Prof. Qian Liqun of Peking University, reportedly a close friend of Wang’s, but according to this article in the Nandu Daily academics from all corners are coming to Wang’s defense, and condemning his accuser Wang Binbin. Zhao Jinghua, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that “80% of Wang Binbin’s examples were quotations with nonstandard citations, but that is a problem of technique, not a moral question of plagiarism.” The director of the Lu Xun museum, Sun Yu, agrees, as does another CASS professor, Zhang Mengyang, who noted that Mao Zedong’s unattributed use of lines written by Li He in his poetry was praised for giving the lines new meaning, and no one ever accused Mao of being a plagiarist. One professor — one of Wang Hui’s original thesis readers — even noted that very similar accusations of plagiarism and improper attribution could be laid against Wang Binbin’s article itself!

Wang Binbin has also responded to some of these criticisms:

Nandu Daily Reporter: Wang Hui responded [to your criticism], saying it would need to be decided in academic circles, and now many academics have come out in support of him. Do you feel there is a problem with the attitudes of Qian Liqun, Zhao Jinghua, and Sun Yu? Did you see […] the Beijing Youth article “Wang Binbin-style agitation and its threat to Chinese academia”, and how do you respond to it?
Wang Binbin: There have not been many scholars speaking for Wang Hui. The attitude of Qian Liqun and others is extremely irresponsible. According to them, the word “plagiarism” should be deleted from the dictionary, and the action of plagiarism will be legitimized or semi-legitimized. As for [the aforementioned article] I maintain my right to sue [the author] and Beijing Youth.

But it’s hard not to question Wang Binbin’s motivations. After all, the thesis in question is already several decades old, and while it was the basis of a book Wang published in the early 1990’s, as far as I can tell, Wang Binbin has not alleged that there are any instances of plagiarism in that book. Jeremiah of Granite Studio expressed doubts in his piece that Wang Binbin’s motivations were pure, and Joel Martinsen of Danwei called Wang Binbin’s article “pretty much a hatchet-job” and notes that Binbin spends as much time criticizing Wang Hui’s writing style as he does raising questions of plagiarism.

Yet some people are taking it seriously. There are even fears among other Lu Xun scholars that the scandal is so big that it could influence perceptions and understanding of the man himself. “This is a betrayal of Lu Xun,” they said.

Reporters discovered that posts about the scandal were being censored on some internet discussion forums. Posts were deleted and replaced with a message that read, “Academic circles have already clarified this issue; it is no longer a worthy discussion topic”.

Wang Binbin
But, of course, the case has led to widespread discussion on the internet anyway, and this discussion has blossomed into ruminations into the nature of plagiarism and personal relationships in Chinese academia. “When asked about the current academic climate, everyone acts as though it has gotten worse, but actual instances of criticizing someone by name are rarely seen,” wrote the Nandu Daily. “But this kind of battle was a common sight in Lu Xun’s time.”

Some see the fight itself as an indication that some Chinese intellectuals are taking plagiarism more seriously. The mere fact that people are arguing over a case from twenty years ago could be good, even necessary, for Chinese academia. Many of the academics defending Wang Hui have shied away from denying that he made mistakes, merely arguing that his mistakes were a reflection of a lack of technical prowess rather than moral shortcomings.

The Problem of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is far from uncommon in Chinese academia. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Nandu Daily that they “often encounter cases of plagiarism”, and in fact had just recently resolved a rather brilliant case where the plagiarist had taken his material from a foreign language source and translated it without attribution.

According to the Nandu Daily reporter, one problem is that there is no real consensus on “academic standards” or exactly what amounts to plagiarism. Some have argued adopting rigid Western standards inhibits freedom, but the CASS apparently supports adhering to the Western golden rule for academic work:

If you’re using someone else’s words or opinions, but haven’t cited the source, you are a plagiarist whether it’s intentional or not. If you’ve noted the source but have taken someone’s words directly without using quotation marks or a block quotation, that is also plagiarism. If what you’ve written is very close to the original work, and in comparing your words with that of the original author you discover yours would make no sense if the original author’s words were removed, that is also plagiarism.

Another problem may be that Chinese academia lacks the formal and rigorous peer review process in place in most Western institutions. According to the Nandu Daily article, “Theft of written work, the inability of one set of academic standards to achieve popular approval, and the difficulty of producing original achievements in academia are all related to the lack of a proper system of academic review.”

If you ask us, the problem probably starts before college, as cheating and plagiarism are rampant in high school and middle school. This kind of cheating doesn’t have a large impact on the system because college admissions are decided based on standardized test grades rather than a student’s high school academic record, but it does ingrain the idea that what’s important is having the right answer at the end of the day, not being original or obtaining that answer in the right way.

The case against Wang Hui seems pretty thin — to put it mildly — but it has prompted a discussion of academic standards in China, and perhaps a big, ugly scandal like this is exactly what Chinese academia needs to finally set for itself a universally-agreed-upon standard for plagiarism (and probably, some universal consequences for plagiarism on academic work, too).

Anyway, what do you think? Is plagiarism a serious problem in China or is this whole thing being blown out of proportion?

0 thoughts on “Wang Hui and Plagiarism in Chinese Academia”

  1. I don’t have experience with professors plagiarizing, but I can write about students. Nearly every teacher I talk to in China, foreign and native alike, agree that plagiarism amongst students is a huge problem. A bigger problem though, is the tendency of the administration to cover up plagiarism and to discourage teachers from reporting it. Students know plagiarism is wrong. The school knows plagiarism is wrong. But, being known as a school full of plagiarists or a school where a lot of students fail is worse. If the school fails kids because of plagiarism, the school gets punished for not being able to pass students. And so, the school administrators actively discourage teachers from failing students for plagiarism. Teachers that stay morally true and insist on failing plagiarists tend to find their contract discontinued. Understandably, such strong willed teachers are few. Not fearing serious punishment for plagiarism, students take the easy way out and plagiarize. Students see their friends plagiarize and think that it’s not a big deal. They plagiarize. No one punishes them. And the cycle continues.


  2. Plagiarism is a pretty serious problem in China, I think. Generally speaking, university graduates don’t have the ability to write original thoughts about their major because of lack of training to do research and as Darth said above, they don’t think plagiarist is a big deal. Professors just remain silent and give their consent to this kind of thing.


  3. Plagiarism is a problem, but I think the bigger issue here is a tendency in China—and, I suppose, elsewhere—to find a few side points, such as plagiarism, for attacking an idea (in Wang Hui’s case, a nuanced critique of China’s authoritarian capitalism) rather than taking on the idea itself. The result is a slide toward a scattered debate that doesn’t really go anywhere.


  4. Plagiarism occurs everywhere in the world. While I do not condone plagiarism in Chinese academia, we have to see this problem in right perspective. According to Wikipedia, in the late 19th century- the early 20th century, about 2/3 of American college students cheated. Things have not gotten any better for American colleges. Professor Susan Blum of University of Michigan who wrote a book on plagiarism in American colleges, indicated that almost 70% of American college students engaged in plagiarism. Considering that America is the most advanced country in the world, the plagiarism in America is doubly shameful.


  5. 70%?? Wow, that seems a little hard to believe. Certainly my own experience in college doesn’t point to numbers anywhere near that high, but perhaps there was a lot more cheating going on at other colleges?

    The thing is these days so many colleges have advanced computer programs for detecting plagiarism that it’s hard to imagine that many people getting away with it (even when you don’t use technology, it’s generally pretty obvious from the examples I have seen).

    I suppose it also depends on what you define as plagiarism. I would believe that 70% of American students have improperly or incompletely formatted citations, which technically is plagiarism, I suppose, but not that 70% of American students had intentionally stolen other people’s words/ideas without attribution. But I certainly could be wrong…


  6. I also doubt that 70% number, and I’d really like to see you cite the source of that statistic!
    As a high school teacher in China, I can tell you that plagiarism is a huge problem. It’s generally a problem in high school in the West too, it’s a skill that needs to be taught, and some people just don’t take to it as easily as others. However, it does seem to be worse here in China. I’ve thought about this a lot in the last 5 years, and I still can’t decide if it’s a language issue or not. After all, summarizing and paraphrasing are high-intermediate and advanced English skills, so if a kid doesn’t have to skill level to do it, does that say he is doesn’t understand plagiarism, or that he doesn’t have the language level necessary to avoid it? However you want to answer that, the fact remains that I encounter it a lot, as do my colleagues.


  7. Plagiarism is a huge problem in China. I don’t know about the academic circles, but I know that for student the problem is huge.
    As some people mentioned above students are usually fully aware of the fact that plagiarism is wrong and that they shouldn’t do it. My girlfriend (she teaches English at uni) got a paper that was supposed to be about Columbia, in which the student simply copied the list from wikipedia with all definitions of the word Columbia (the country, University etc.). Obviously this is just an extreme case, but if out of 50 papers a mere 3 are not copied from the internet than that says something about the plagiarising culture in China.
    However this problem is not limited to university, but can be seen in all domains. Popular culture, books, all kinds of goods and intellectual knowledge.


  8. Yeah, certainly as a high school teacher in the States (though not for much longer!), the level of plagiarism I see is nowhere near 70%, and most plagiarism cases end up just being cases of not understanding how to cite something properly. It’s sort of hard to believe that so many people would suddenly become plagiarists in college, but who knows.

    And I think that in terms of language learning, at a certain level it’s sort of pointless, plagiarism is the same thing as “practicing” because of kids limited vocab. But it is pretty hard to draw the line in terms of at what point it stops becoming “good job, you memorized the dialogue correctly” and starts becoming “we need to have a meeting with the principal.”


  9. I don’t have any experience in China’s academia, but as Schamotnik noted above, plagiarism isn’t limited to just the universities. Working in the media, I see writers blatantly copy and paste passages from other articles into their own. I can’t tell if their response, when told it’s wrong to plagiarize, is apathy or misunderstanding. While avoiding plagiarism does require some technical skill and knowing how to sort your thoughts from those of others, I’m a little dismayed that China’s education system doesn’t really help people gain the “intermediate” or “advanced” language skills needed to avoid the problem. Regardless, in working with the writers, there seems to be a lack of motivation to produce anything original. I wonder if it’s symptomatic of a culture that discourages independent thinking and punishes people for speaking out.


  10. I can’t imagine how hanyuchoi can assert 70% of students in America cheat. If an American college student is discovered to have turned in plagiarized work, there are severe repercussions – not so in China.

    I’m currently teaching at a university in Zhejiang province and plagiarism is out of control! Last semester I taught English Writing to English majors. Each week I assigned a short writing assignment. After one month of assignments, students who hadn’t plagiarized at least once were a small minority – I’m talking about students I had physical proof that plagiarized. I suspect many more simply wrote their compositions in Chinese and then used a translator for the whole thing. I was clearly told I was not allowed to fail them, even the repeat, repeat, repeat offenders.

    My university enables cheaters. I would be shocked to find a university that was anywhere near as ambivalent about endemic cheating in the US.


  11. I think plagiarism is a good deal different from piracy.

    Piracy is, I think, basically defensible in terms of a country’s development. Ha Jun Chang and others have shown how most countries, including Britain and, I believe, the U.S., enforced others’ copyrights on technology loosely (if at all) while industrializing and then tightened copyrights as they matured and could produce useful inventions themselves. Why, morally speaking, should the “rights” of Microsoft matter more than the rights of the Chinese people to a better life? I say steal away!

    Academic plagiarism, on the other hand, undercuts the very critical debate that is necessary for China and other countries to come up with their own inventions and their own theories of the way the world works that will eventually move their country to the next plane of development. And, anyway, it seems more harmful for a culture than making fake iPhones.


  12. @Old Tales Retold
    I think it’s easy to say go steal from Microsoft. However if you’re an up and starting business and just came up with a very good product that gets pirated, you might change your

    I’m not saying I have never downloaded anything or never bought pirated goods, but it’s a matter of perspective.

    I think the worst thing is actually that schools tolerate(or even encourage) plagiarism and that you cannot fail students. Even if you do fail students the school will pass them. That’s the worst part.


  13. Dude did you guys know 90 scholars from america and england and other places have signed a letter drafted by Lydia Liu and Tani Barlow saying that Wang Hui is absolutely beyond plagiarism? They sent the letter to the president and party secretary of Tsinghua University where Wang works. If they prove that Wang actually did plagiarize, which is very likely to happen, those ppl are screwed.


  14. For those of you who could read Chinese, please visit the link below which summarizes all the hard evidence on Wang Hui’s plagerism:

    What Wang Hui did is not just playing with footnotes; there are at least a dozen instances from the link above in which he copied other scholars’ works word by word without a reference. Make the judgment by yourself.

    Shame on those who signed Lydia Liu’s open letters.


  15. Regardless of what the 96 scholars may have been thinking or what they believe should be done about this situation, the letter/petition they signed is now being used to prevent the creation of a professional investigation by the Tsinghua University. Peter Zarrow’s statement clearly expresses his belief that such an investigation should be carried out which is ironic because his actions are now being used to obstruct the proper course of action which he himself supports.


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