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:
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!
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 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”.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?