Scholarship and education

Peking University's fake sea turtles

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Early last month, Harvard math professor Qiu Chengtong (English name Shing-tung Yao) accused Peking University of listing on its faculty "foreign professors" who in reality had little or nothing to do with the school. The essence of Qiu's statement, quickly repeated through the press and across the net, was that "The majority of overseas talent brought in by PKU is fake."

While this may bring to mind the fake lecturer embarrassment PKU suffered two years ago, Qiu's allegation points to a more systematic fraud that cheats the government out of millions of yuan - New Centry Weekly quotes the dean of the mathematics department at an unnamed Chinese university to the effect that PKU used the presence of Princeton mathematics professor Tian Gang on its faculty to win a 130 million yuan grant to establish an international mathematics center.

Here's what Qiu said in Southern People Weekly in July (as quoted in Beijing Morning Post):

Many projects in China on the surface seem to involve lots of people, foreign experts especially, but they are actually fake. Many professors work full-time overseas, where rules require them to spend nine months in the US (doing research). Harvard professors, for example, must spend 9 months in the US; they can only be away for three months. So-called full-time recruitment is all false. Why fake it? Where there's money to be made people will go after it. Whether Peking University or some other university, what they're given is money for full-time recruitment, several million per year, so why not go after it? When a famous university brings in a scholar it can use the name to get a hefty sum from the Ministry of Education. This is many people, not just a single individual. New York Times says that more than 40% of talent brought in by Peking University is from overseas. If you go to the US to check it out, I guarantee that most of them are fake.

Qiu did not provide any data to back up his allegation, and since he had clashed with PKU in the past, his remarks merely formed a part of this summer's debate over whether the mainland's top-level universities were hemorrhaging talent to Hong Kong.

It was the university itself that resurrected the issue, when it issued a response to Qiu's allegations on the 29th of July.

Commentators immediately pounced on the university's statement, not because of the facts involved, but because of the attitude displayed by the PKU public relations reps. In the first place, the response was late in coming, more than half a month after Qiu Chengtong's allegations. More damaging to the university, however, was the tone of its response, which struck many as not taking the issue seriously.

From Wang Xiaoyu, a fellow of the Institute of Cultural Criticism of Tongji University, writing in the Southern Metropolis Daily:

Because of the lack of an independent third-party investigation, I remain dubious about the statements from both Qiu Chengtong and the PKU spokesperson. In the absence of sufficient materials, I do not plan to continue to discuss the issue of "baseless salaries" given to overseas talent; rather, I have some questions about the press spokesperson's "crisis PR." Not only does the formal declaration of the PKU authorities not put to rest the "rumors," but rather brings attention back to Qiu Chengtong's argument, which had already begun to be forgotten, and stirs up more debate. Speaking bluntly, this is case of tremendous failure of "crisis PR."

[The PKU] press spokesperson denied Qiu Chengtong's criticisms in one breath, calling it "rumor," but he did not provide sufficient evidence to support his position. Even if you say your opponent "twists facts," you still have the need to clarify those "facts." The majority of the press spokesperson's argument was devoted to criticising his opponent, and used a very small space to explain that invited overseas talent is divided into distinguished professors and lecturing professors, with differences in appointment times as well as compensation. But this explanation was not elaborated upon - how much overseas talent does PKU bring in? What is the proportional representation of distinguished professors and lecturing professors? How much time do they spend working at PKU? This important information was not explained, so naturally it is unconvincing. And the PKU press spokesperson completely ignored Qiu Chengtong's criticisms of his own student, PKU distinguished professor Tian Gang.

"Practices prove.....it has been verified by history" - the attitude of letting "practice" and "history" speak for you is a kind of illogical logic, and is a great taboo for press spokespersons....moreover, how "practices" will "prove," how will "history" will "verify" is not something that a press spokesperson can determine. "It distorts...,serious violation....,....had an extremely bad influence,....we have reason to believe,...." - this anti-moral vocabulary will not attract sympathy from the public. In the absence of factual proof, righteous language may sound nice but it is exceedingly hollow. It is hard to imagine this language coming from a PKU press spokesperson; it sounds more like the tone of a CCTV News Broadcast anchor.

The Yanzhao Metropolis Daily ran an editorial titled "Why does PKU have to be so Ah-Q-ish?":

Since academician Qiu has criticized PKU, why didn't PKU take this as an excellent opportunity to review its practice of bringing in returned talent? Why not invite academician Qiu to make some more specific recommendations? Since the situation has already become a public issue, why didn't PKU open to society its list of returned talent and their working conditions? This information is not a trade secret, and it does not involve personal privacy, so what's the harm in making it public? If academician Qiu is correct, then is this not a massive boost to the work of PKU's returned talent? If academician Qiu is mistaken, I trust that he will apologize, and even if he does not apologize, won't this raise the image of PKU in the minds of the public?

It's a shame, then, that PKU didn't do this, but rather took up the "glowering" position of Ah-Q, and, shamed into anger, struck back at the criticisms of academician Qiu - what a display of a lack of confidence!

Over the following days, two documents were released on the PKU website that attempted to explain the recruitment process and the achievements that invited professors had made over the years the program had been in place. Public opinion, however, felt that the effort was just another attempt to whitewash the affair, since the data was one-sided and limited.

This week's New Century Weekly has a concise summary of the affair (though it writes Qiu's surname differently than all other reports) in which it describes how PKU has already edited the information on its website for several several professors. Tian Gang, currently at Princeton, and Xia Zhihong, currently at Northwestern, had originally been listed as "distinguished professors," a position that would require them to be at PKU at least 4 months out of each year. They are now "lecturing professors," with attendance of 3 months (or 2 months in extreme cases). A number of other professors, including three Nobel laureates, apparently hold full-time positions at both PKU and an American university.

The go-to person in these instances of academic shenanigans is Fang Zhouzi (Fang Shimin), webmaster of XYS, a website that is something of a Cassandra in the movement against academic dishonesty. As quoted in NCW, Fang is unsurprised, since as early as 2002 he had noticed similar goings-on at Tsinghua University.

In a follow-up, Southern People Weekly ran a short summary that quoted PKU alum Xue Yong (now living overseas) calling for a comprehensive review of the recruitment program. It also reported the results of a Sohu online poll:

Who is lying in the "faked talent" affair?

· PKU is lying: 91.52%
· Qiu Chengtong is lying: 2.72%
· Hard to say: 5.75%

Clearly, whatever the facts turn out to be, the reputation of Peking University has already taken a hit.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Peking University's fake sea turtles.

Comments on Peking University's fake sea turtles

It would be nice to know if the Chinese university tems co-incide with those in US, meaning that the "visiting" professors will actually be visiting a campus devoid of both research staff and students.

[Comment edited for relevance]

This, of course, from a professor of the university which was ordered to pay a $25 million settlement for fraudulent grant claims.

Qiu's English name:
Shing-Tung Yau
Harvard University
Department of Mathematics

off topic maybe but what has always amused me are the english teachers who get bumped up to professor at chinese universities (and not just the provincial ones).

Even the danwei pages have featured one american contributor who trumpets himself (and is trumpeted by the school) as a visiting professor at the china foreign affairs university.

But what do the universities get out of this? does it help funding to have more foreign 'professors' on the books? I always thought it was just another way to keep wages down by honoring the foreign expert with an overblown title but I may be wrong.

This seems to be reenacting all the great tragedy of the novel Fortress Besieged.

Having been in Chinese education for a number of years, it is not only sad to see, but more and more a common thing.

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