Fraud threatens China

BEIJING – No one disputes Zhang Wuben’s talents as a salesman. Through television shows, DVDs and a best-selling book, he convinced millions of people that raw eggplant and immense quantities of mung beans could cure lupus, diabetes, depression and cancer.

For $450, seriously ill patients could buy a 10-minute consultation and a prescription – except Zhang, one of the most popular practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, was booked through 2012.

But when the price of mung beans skyrocketed this spring, Chinese journalists began digging deeper. They learned that contrary to his claims, Zhang, 47, was not from a long line of doctors (his father was a weaver). Nor did he earn a degree from Beijing Medical University (his only formal education, it turned out, was the correspondence course he took after losing his job at a textile mill).

The exposure of Zhang’s faked credentials provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing over what many scholars and Chinese complain are the dishonest practices that permeate society, including students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who promote fake or unoriginal research, and dairy companies that sell poisoned milk to infants.

The most recent string of revelations has been bracing. After a plane crash in August killed 42 people in northeast China, officials discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories. China devotes significant resources to building a world-class education system and pioneering research in competitive industries and sciences, and it has had notable successes in network computing, clean energy and military technology. But a lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say.

“If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit.”

Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations – a measure of innovation – has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. In December, a British journal that specializes in crystal formations announced that it was withdrawing more than 70 papers by Chinese authors whose research was of questionable originality or rigor.

In an editorial published earlier this year, The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a “research superpower” by 2020.

Fang Shimin, a muckraking writer who has become a well known advocate for academic integrity, said the problem started with the state-run university system, where politically appointed bureaucrats have little expertise in the fields they oversee. Because competition for grants, housing perks and career advancement is so intense, officials base their decisions on the number of papers published.

Fang Shimin and another crusading journalist, Fang Xuanchang, have heard the vows and threats before. In 2004 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education announced anti-fraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

In recent years, both journalists have taken on Xiao Chuanguo, a urologist who invented a surgical procedure aimed at restoring bladder function in children with spina bifida, a congenital deformation of the spinal column that can lead to incontinence and, when untreated, kidney failure and death.

In a series of investigative articles and blog postings, the two men uncovered discrepancies in Xiao’s website, including claims that he had published 26 articles in English-language journals (they could find only four) and that he had won an achievement award from the American Urological Association (the award was for an essay he wrote).

But even more troubling, they said, were assertions that his surgery had an 85 percent success rate. Of more than 100 patients interviewed, they said, none reported having been cured of incontinence, with nearly 40 percent saying their health had worsened after the procedure, which involved rerouting a leg nerve to the bladder.

Wherever the truth may have been, Xiao was incensed. He filed a string of libel suits against Fang Shimin and told anyone who would listen that revenge would be his.

This summer both men were brutally attacked on the street in Beijing – Fang Xuanchang by thugs with an iron bar and Fang Shimin by two men wielding pepper spray and a hammer.

When the police arrested Xiao on September 21, he quickly confessed to hiring the men to carry out the attack, according to the police report. His reason, he said, was vengeance for the revelations he blames for blocking his appointment to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Despite his confession, Xiao’s employer, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, appeared unwilling to take any action against him. In a statement, administrators said they were shocked by news of his arrest but said they would await the outcome of judicial procedures before severing their ties to him.