Chinese academia: temptation in a toxic system

The arrest of several academics has raised questions about the nation’s research culture, says Hong Bing

December 11, 2014

Has China’s higher education sector become a hotbed of corruption? The arrest of two professors highlights big issues for the nation around research funding and the commercialisation of research.

In October, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China announced that several professors had been arrested over the alleged misappropriation of state research funds.

Among them was Li Ning, an animal breeding specialist at the China Agricultural University and the country’s leading scientist in transgenic research, who had cloned a rare cattle species in 2002. His arrest came after national audits found that seven professors from five universities obtained research funds of more than 25 million yuan (£2.6 million) through false means, according to media reports.

According to the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, money might have been transferred to Beijing Jipulin Biotech Ltd, a company in which Li had bought a share.

Chu Jian, vice-president of prestigious Zhejiang University at the time, was arrested in December 2013 on suspicion of embezzling state assets. He was also the co-founder and former chief executive officer of Supcon Group, a subsidiary company of the former Zhejiang University-owned Zhejiang Highne Science and Technology Company, which was listed in 1999 on the stock market, according to the Global Times.

The newspaper reported that it was alleged that Chu transferred the better-performing Supcon assets to Highne, leaving bad assets behind, which is “illegal”.

The two cases connect into broader issues in Chinese academia. Cut-throat competition in applying for state research funds could lead to bribery. Fabrication of spending and invoices could be attributed to lack of supervision over expenditure.

Others take a different view. A Southern Weekend editorial defined academics as being both taxpayers and tax consumers, and argued that the general public has “deified” the intelligentsia and their profession in China for too long. Academia, the newspaper added, has been obsessed with that deification and therefore a “disenchantment” between the public and the academy is urgent.

“It is convenient to place yourself morally high, but your talents and morality have to match it…otherwise the higher you climb, the harder you fall,” the newspaper said.

As a loyal reader of Southern Weekend for many years, I was disappointed to read that.

Citing Chu Jian’s case, the noted financial writer Wu Xiaobo asked a more profound question: China boasts so many prestigious universities and talented scientists, but why can’t it make a Silicon Valley?

Wu believes the difference lies in the fact that Silicon Valley’s conveyor-belt structure (talent, universities, companies) can rely on a mature legal system.

Meanwhile, the Chu case is a case in point that “within China’s current university research system, if a scientist intends to industrialise his technological innovation…the more developed the business is, the more likely he commits [an alleged] crime”.

I totally agree with Wu’s description of this weird “Chu Jian predicament”.

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Reader's comments (1)

From the example to Li Ning, the transgenic researcher in China and another one in Chinese academia. The temptation is heavier than we can expect. What a pity!

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