Attack on China whistleblower shows risk of unveiling corruption, fraud

China whistleblower Fang Zhouzi was mugged after his criticism of a Chinese hospital. 'I’ve had threatening phone calls and e-mails before, but this was the first time I have been attacked,' he says.

By , Staff writer

A bungled attack on a whistleblower famous for his exposés of fraud and pseudoscience has drawn fresh attention to the vexed issues of academic dishonesty and popular gullibility in China.

Fang Zhouzi, a popular science writer and blogger, was assaulted by two men as he walked to his Beijing home Sunday evening; one sprayed a chemical in his face, the other beat him with a hammer. He was only slightly injured and was released from hospital later Sunday night.

“I’ve had threatening phone calls and e-mails before, but this was the first time I have been attacked,” Mr. Fang said in a telephone interview.

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The anticorruption activist has been involved recently in a number of high profile cases, most notably questioning a claim by a former president of Microsoft China that he had earned his PhD from the prestigious California Institute of Technology.

Tang Jun, who had listed his degree as an achievement in a book recounting his success in business, later acknowledged that his PhD actually came from Pacific Western University in California. That institution was a diploma mill that sold academic credentials and required no classroom instruction, according to a 2004 report by the US Government Accountability Office.

In a number of recent blog posts, Fang also poured skepticism on celebrity Taoist sage Li Yi, who claims extraordinary feats of prowess and counts pop stars and business luminaries among his disciples. Mr. Li stepped down from his public positions Saturday, in the wake of accusations against him of rape and tax evasion.

Who attacked Fang?

Fang’s lawyer, Peng Jian, said he thought the attack was most likely ordered by a private hospital in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, which specializes in a controversial operation on the nervous system to control urinary incontinence.

A Chinese journalist who had written an article raising doubts about the operation’s efficacy was assaulted last June. Fang, in a blog posted three weeks ago, cited an article in a US magazine criticizing the operation. A court in Zhengzhou is due later this month to hear a malpractice suit brought by Mr. Peng against the hospital on behalf of a group of patients claiming the operation did them more harm than good.

More to be done on fraud in China

Last year the Ministry of Education urged universities to weed out plagiarists from their faculties. This meant reporting plagiarists, denying them research funding, sacking them, and possibly suing them. The measures were designed to “keep the academic field clean,” an official said at the time.

New scandals this year however, including plagiarism accusations against an internationally respected political science scholar Wang Hui and the dismissal of a top professor of energy and power studies found guilty of over 30 cases of plagiarism, led the state-owned “China Daily” to editorialize last month that “it is by now evident that the nation needs better regulations to counter the practice in academia.”

"The government is not doing enough," agrees Fang.

Academia is not the only field to be plagued by plagiarism, nor the only one reluctant to face up to it. Last January, Sang Yuzhu, the winner of China’s highest photography award, was stripped of his medal and his post in the Chinese Photographers’ Association when it was shown he had submitted other photographers’ work to the competition.

The CPA did not acknowledge the plagiarism, however. Officially he was accused only of “joint collaboration” with the two other photographers, in violation of competition rules.

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