Plagiarism in China fuels debate on intellectual theft

Wang Mingming is a model Chinese educator - young, Western-trained, and credited with updating the teaching of sociology.

But now, the professor at elite Peking University is better known for something else. Dr. Wang is at the center of a plagiarism scandal, accused of copying portions of a book by an American researcher.

The controversy is playing out in newspapers and on the Internet, fueling arguments over academic standards in a country where shops are well-stocked with pirated movies, music, books, and other stolen intellectual property.

Wang is accused of using parts of a an edition of "Cultural Anthropology," a popular textbook by William Haviland of the University of Vermont, in his own 1998 book. Wang translated Dr. Haviland's book into Chinese in 1987 with his permission.

The official Xinhua News Agency says Wang has been stripped of his teaching posts. However, the school says it is still weighing his fate and won't give any details.

Wang has received an outpouring of support on the Internet, where students and others argue that he is being treated too harshly. An online bulletin board run by his department lists more than 1,200 messages about him posted last week. Many came from students who praise Wang as an excellent teacher. They say that if Peking University wants to set an example, it picked the wrong target.

"How many books ... are written totally by the authors? Even students' papers are copies of others," said a note signed with the English name "Tailor."

Nevertheless, said another, the professor has to be held accountable: "Wang dug his own grave. He deserves this."

A spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, says a scholar hasn't been punished for plagiarism in China for at least six years. "This case has gotten a lot of attention, not because the problem is getting worse, but because the press situation is opening up, letting the public know the truth," says the spokesman, who did not give his name.

The controversy contrasts with China's tolerance of fraud elsewhere. Copying of foreign products is rampant, despite occasional crackdowns. Executives are routinely said to lie about their education. China's supreme court agreed last week to let shareholders sue companies that lie about finances.

Wang was accused in December by a graduate student writing in a Shanghai scholarly journal. The student pointed to sections of Wang's 1998 book, "Imaginary Alien Nation," that were identical to the Chinese version of Haviland's book.

Haviland, who retired in 1999, says Wang's translation of his book was the first modern anthropology textbook published in China. "It's played an important role in reviving anthropology in China," Haviland says from his home in Maine.

He adds that Wang wrote to him to apologize for using his material without citing him. "I would hate to see the guy go down the tubes for what appears to be an honest mistake."

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