Tea Leaf Nation

Accusations Fly After Chinese Computer Scientist Wins Major Prize

Fraud is so endemic in Chinese schools that many are guilty until proven innocent.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 5.06.11 PM (2)

“I am just a little luckier than other people.” Chinese computer scientist Zhang Yaoxue deployed this false modesty repeatedly when he received China’s prestigious National Science Award on Jan. 9. Chances are, Zhang now cringes at the thought of those words. In the month since he received the award, he’s been subject to a barrage of criticism at home and abroad about the quality of his work and of his character. A former Ministry of Education official and currently the President of Central South University in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, Zhang has been lambasted for being too much of an administrator, and allegedly not enough of a researcher. At best, he’s been called unworthy of the prize; at worst he’s been called a fraud and a plagiarist. Zhang denies stealing anyone else’s work. But few seem willing to believe him. Fraud has become so common in Chinese universities that many assume guilt until innocence is proven. Whatever the outcome, the ugly rhetoric surrounding Zhang’s case points to deep-seated frustration in the academic community over the government’s tight handle on scientific research and its purse strings.

The National Science Award is approved by China’s State Council, its cabinet, and is considered by many to be the country’s most prestigious science award. It comes with about $32,000 in prize money; the committee is so selective that in nine out of the past 15 years, it’s granted no prize at all. Zhang was nominated by his former employer, the Ministry of Education; soon after he was named the winner for his “transparent computing” project, which theorizes a system for remotely accessing computers from different devices such as phones or tablets, critics started to pile on.

On Jan. 21 Zhao Yaxiong, a Chinese computer scientist based in the United States, wrote on Quora, a popular question-and-answer website, that Zhang’s work was “absolutely trash-level stuff.” Zhao said Zhang’s strength was his ability to use “political skills” to promote himself in the Chinese computer science community. (Foreign Policy reached Zhao via email, but he declined to be interviewed.) Chinese computer engineer Liu Yang wrote that Zhang’s work was “too engineering-oriented and too ordinary.” Liu’s comments have since been deleted, apparently by censors, but were reported in an article by ScienceInsider a daily news site affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The ScienceInsider article also quoted Wang Xiaoping, a Shanghai computer scientist, saying in a separate post that Zhang’s winning project was “a far cry” from meeting the prize’s standards.

On Feb. 2, the same day the ScienceInsider piece came out, the storm escalated to a tempest when a user on GitHub, an online code sharing service, alleged that Zhang’s winning project used plagiarized open-source code written by Iordan Iordanov, a coder in Sofia, Bulgaria. As proof, the Github user shared a screen grab of a video that Zhang’s team had prepared to introduce their work. A block of English language text is shown on the screen of a tablet and when Googled, that block of text can be found in open source code initially posted on Github by Iordanov in Feb. 2012 (it’s been modified multiple times since.) Iordanov himself replied to the message, writing, “It is a great honor my project has won such a prestigious prise [sic] regardless of the circumstances.”

The GitHub allegations quickly rippled through Chinese social media and news sites, forcing Zhang to reply to the claims. He told the Beijing News on Feb. 3 that the demonstration in the video was explaining the system for a project called “transparent desktop,” while the prize was actually given for a related but distinct project called “transparent computing.” He also denied plagiarizing or stealing anyone else’s work but said he legally used open source code, though claimed none was used in the prize-winning transparent computing project. Neither Zhang or Iordanov replied to emailed requests for comment about the case.

Some of Zhang’s harshest critics, including prominent academic fraud buster Fang Zhouzi, acknowledge upfront that they aren’t qualified to judge the merits of Zhang’s work. In a blog post, Fang explained that he doubted Zhang was worthy of the prize because Zhang spent so much of his career as either a government official or a university school administrator, not a pure researcher. This led Fang to conclude that the prize was “certainly a result of his use of his power and official contacts.” That someone like Zhang could win China’s top science prize would have to be “a miracle of God,” he wrote.

Judging by the online reaction, which was swift and extreme, many people in China seem predisposed to believe that fraud at this level is not only possible, but likely. Academic fraud is, after all, widespread in China. Susan Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who has studied plagiarism in China, wrote in a Nov. 2012 editorial for the state-run English-language China Daily newspaper traced the problem to the government’s role as the main source of funding for institutes of higher education, combined with the fact that publishing is often the way to win government funding. “All this leads to a temptation to inflate the number of publications…copying the work of others, fabricating research findings, including scientific data, and more.”

Solving such a massive structural issue seems daunting. Deng Yuwen, writer and former deputy editor of a Communist Party journal, Study Times, suggesting starting small. In an editorial inspired by Zhang’s case Feb. 6, he proposed that the government remove itself from the administration of the National Science Prize and leave it to a committee of independent experts. Government-led awards lead to “misguided incentives,” Deng wrote.

So far, there’s been no signal that the government will consider bowing out. And there’s been no sign that Zhang might be stripped of the award. But it’s certain Zhang’s not feeling lucky anymore. In a Feb. 4 interview with China Education Web, a website run by the Ministry of Education, he was asked how he felt about the public reaction to his prize. “I am really upset,” he replied. When pressed to elaborate more, he added that he stands by the authenticity of his work, and reserves the right to take legal action against his critics.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article referred to ScienceInsider as ScienceMag, which is the web domain for the magazine.

Image via Central South University/free use

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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