Old boys and backhanders

October 24, 2013

Zhang Shuguang, a former railway ministry official, recently went on trial for corruption. He pleaded guilty, and admitted to having spent nearly half of the $7.8 million (£4.9 million) in bribes that he had collected on trying to get himself elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The CAS is the country’s national academy for the natural sciences, and it has a huge influence in China’s academic life.

Not long after Zhang’s admission, a former student of mine who now works at a TV station asked me if I would like to suggest any questions for her upcoming interview with Rao Yi. Until recently, Professor Rao was dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. His surprising failure to gain CAS membership in the August 2011 election made the process of becoming a fellow a public issue widely discussed outside scholarly circles. Later, he announced in his blog that he would in future refuse to be a candidate for CAS membership.

“Ask for his comments about the election of members to the Chinese Academy of Sciences,” I told my former student.

Within seconds of sending that reply, I received a laughter icon in the instant message window.

The question may be a difficult one to ask so publicly, but it’s a natural one – and imperative in light of the Zhang trial.

Not only is Professor Rao widely considered to be an outstanding biologist, he is also an open critic of China’s scientific research system. Many people believe that his outspokenness is the reason why he missed out. As early as 2004, Professor Rao and two colleagues called publicly for the reform of China’s research funding system, via an article in Nature. In 2010, he and Shi Yigong published an article in Science complaining that cronyism was blighting China’s research culture. They claimed that “to obtain major grants in China, it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favorite experts”. Professor Shi, who returned from Princeton University and became dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, failed to gain CAS membership in the 2011 election.

According to the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, when Zhang made his first attempt to gain CAS membership in 2007, he had not even finished his PhD. However, it didn’t really matter. When China launched its ambitious high-speed-railway development plan in 2004, Zhang became a key figure in overseeing the procurement of rolling stock and other equipment. The Beijing News reported that, with the huge bribes he received from several manufacturers and suppliers, he assembled a team of 30 top scholars and engineers to contribute to the books and papers he submitted to procure his CAS membership candidacy.

In the 2007 elections to the CAS, Zhang fell seven votes short of securing membership; in 2009 (elections are held every two years), he was one vote shy. Although it has been widely reported by national and local media that the CAS received an anonymous report alleging that Zhang had engaged in fraud in his effort to win membership in 2007, the CAS declared in a recent statement that it had not received any complaint about Zhang spending money in elections and promised that “harsh punishment will be handed out” if “election fraud is confirmed”.

Together, the cases of Zhang and Professor Rao highlight important concerns about academic life in China. There are strong currents of cronyism and even attempted corruption, but those who dare to raise concerns jeopardise their own careers. So how can China’s academic life become more independent and merit-based?

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