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China: Wang Hui's plagiarism scandal, international turn

Categories: East Asia, China, Education, Freedom of Speech, Media & Journalism, Politics

A plagiarism scandal broke out in March in Chinese academic circles when Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin charged that Wang Hui's dissertation on Lu Xun -Resistance to despair – contains a number of passages lifted from other books without citation. (More background information from Granite Studio and ChinaGeeks)

Wang Hui is honored as the spokesperson of the Chinese “New Left” intellectual circle and in spite of the scandal, in May he was nominated by Tsinghua University and successfully received a scholarship award from the highest government authority, the State Council.

While Wang Hui kept silent and expected the matter to be “clarified within the academic community”, many scholars and public intellectuals have commented on the issue via local media outlets. Some defended Wang Hui; some pointed out that the dilemma is one of non-standard citation rather than of intentional plagiarism; some have suggested a thorough investigation be led by an independent academic committee. The whole debate has mainly taken place within the local academic circle and online public sphere until very recently (July 7) when a local media outlet (ifeng.com) disclosed a joint letter signed by “an international community of scholars, translators, editors, historians and cultural critics” in support of Wang Hui.

Backup from international academic community

The open letter, signed by many prominent western scholars such as Tani Barlow, Arif Dirlik, Gayatri C. Spivak and Frederic Jameson, frames the plagiarism charge as an “attack from the popular media in China” and defends Wang Hui's academic integrity:

The charges have been contested and discredited in the careful analyses given by Zhong Biao, Shu Wei, Wei Xing and others. Among the signatories to this letter are also translators and they are without doubt closest to the work of Wang Hui.  Each translator has checked and double checked all the footnotes in the vast bibliographies of Professor Wang's publications over the last thirty years.  None has found any indication of plagiarism no matter how loosely this word is defined.

Second, among us are many Asia specialists in Chinese studies and we attest to Professor Wang's scholarly integrity and his importance in international Asian studies. 

Interestingly, the two accounts of Zhong Biao and Wei Xing, quoted in the letter, were set up for the purpose of this debate but quoted as if the two individuals were well-known public intellectuals. In addition, their “careful analyses” have yet to clear Wang Hui of his technical mistakes. In Zhong Biao's article, he explains the background of Wang Hui's book and criticizes Wang Binbin's unreasonable charge:


The publication of “Resistance to Despair” was between 1988-1991. All of us know that it is a sensitive period. The academic standard was very different then. In the new edition, Wang Hui explains in a footnote of his bibliography that “in the first edition, the publisher demanded all references be deleted. This is a newly edited reference list.”

脱注是作者的疏失,日后修订《反抗绝望》时可以补充完善。但从上下文的引证来看,作者并无掩盖与前述几本著作的关系的意思,因为在这些段落的前后,作者都 曾引及这些书。而且这里的引述主要都是历史背景性的或理论背景性的叙述,是参照性质的,并不涉及作者的中心观点。疏失和剽窃,是完全不同性质的问题。

Missing footnotes is the writer's mistake and he can improve that in the future edition. However, reading from the text and footnotes, the writer does not try to hide the fact that the passages are closely connected with the few books he quoted in the previous pages. Moreover, what has been quoted is mainly the historical and theoretical background rather than the writer's main argument. Unthoughtful mistakes and plagiarism are issues of different nature.

Media Attack?

Wei Xing is the first to frame the issue as a media attack and his viewpoint has obviously been taken up by the international community of scholars’ joint letter:


It is clear that in Wang Binbin's article, there are “very few” “copied” passages and it is “difficult to define their nature”. However, the Southern Weekend decided to publish the article against its usual practice on March 25. Such kind of coverage is an illegal “absent trial” without substantial evidence but built upon the assumption of a “presumed guilty”.

Quoting from a number of debates across web-platforms such as Douban's Duping(讀品) and zhongguosixiang.com, Wei Xing believes that media and internet violence have destroyed academic integrity:


The conspiracy between the printed media and online media have promoted an unrestrained violence, destroying the integrity of academia. Should the Chinese Academia be submerged in such kind of violence? How can we defend our independence and freedom? This is a serious issue.

A transparent and accountable investigation

Many scholars and intellectuals will laugh at the above quote as the Chinese Academia has hardly enjoyed any freedom and independence since 1949 and political liberals believe that the only way to strike for academic freedom is to develop accountability to the public. In this sense, the joint letter signed by more than 60 local university professors and public intellectuals calling for immediate investigation by the Tsinghua University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on Wang Hui's plagiarism charge is probably a most effective attempt to defend the academic independence and freedom:

事件發生距今已3個月,其間不斷有學者呼籲中國社會科學院和清華大學組織調查委員會,但是至今未見回應。汪暉對上述批評迄今也沒有任何回應,但他曾表態, 希望能由學術界內部來解決。為對汪暉教授負責,澄清這一爭議,結束莫衷一是的狀態,走向良性循環,我們支持熊、林二位的建議,聯名要求中國社科院和清華大 學迅速答複,履行職責。我們也同意易中天的主張,在組成調查委員會時,應邀請貴院、貴校之外的學者,乃至海外學者參加,公示委員會名單和調查結果。我們同 時要求,調查結論以及各委員投票意向最終能公布,以示公開、公正,接受公眾監督。

The debate has been carrying on for three months, many scholars have urged the Chinese Academy of Social Science and Tsinghua University to organize an investigative committee. Up till now there isnt’ any response from the two institution. Wang Hui has remained silent regarding the charge but he once mentioned that he hope the issue would be solved within the academic community. In order to clarify the confusion and end the controversy, we support the suggestion raised by Xiong Bingji and Lin Yusheng in this joint letter and look forward for the two institutions’ positive reply in fulfilling the duty. We also agree with Yi Chongtin that the committee should be composed of overseas scholars and publicize the investigation result and keep the process, including the opinions and attitudes of individual committee member, transparent to the public.

Local political liberals VS. international new left

The two letters is now viewed as a confrontation between two clans of intellectuals: the local political liberal VS. the international new left. The former calls for a transparent investigation and public accountability, the latter frames the debate as attack from popular media and open criticisms as violence against academic freedom.

Wu Lian, a literary critics is outraged by the international joint letter:


You said that “the media attack a scholar without any reason”, if so, it is defamation! You should have sued the media outlet in a Chinese court, not by writing this letter to press an university authority. You are wrong, the principal is no judge here!


You said that you have to “support professor Wang”. You are wrong again! Is this a political suppression? How come we have never heard any support from you when political dissidents are repression in serious political incidents? Do you think academic fame is more important than other value and deserve your urgent support more?




You have cut and pasted the reality in the bright day light. Every Chinese person who concerns about this incident knows that the article written by Wang Binbin that charges Professor Wang's Resistance to Despair is first published in “Literature and Arts Studies” and then republished in Southern Weekend. You ignore such fact and like what you have always said, “history is constructed”, now you have directly engaged in the “construction” of reality!

Under such “construction”, the local academic publication, Literature and Arts Studies has vaporized, vanished, disappeared!

This is an insult to an important Chinese academic publication!


What is the intention of this rhetorical open letter to the Tsinghua authority? To prove that Professor Wang Hui is innocent? But there hasn't been an investigation yet! To prove that Professor Wang Hui is honored in your constructed “world”? But Wang Binbin's article has never addressed this issue! To prove that “media” is “crazy” and that the university need not respond to that? However, so many scholars have discussed about the issue and it is the duty of the media to report on that. The public has the right to know! Or do you think that whenever scholars talk or publish through the media outlets, their discussion would turn into media talk?

Immediate responses

It seems that the international turn of the scandal is doomed to add oil to the boiling water in China .Below are some immediate responses from Twitter:


汪晖不是成天反全球资本主义的扩张吗, 怎么一到自己跟前,就抱上全球文化霸权的大腿了, 真恶心人啊

Isn't Wang Hui against globalization and global capitalism? How come he embraces the global cultural hegemony when it comes to personal interest, this is disgusting!



Wang Hui is a leftist in China and in the West. In mainland China, the left embraces the CCP; in the West, the left challenges the establishment.



The opinion of the 80 scholar joint letter supporting plagiarism is purely bullshit. Firstly it did not refer to the problematic passages raised by Wang Binbin and others; Secondly, who will trust those who try to prove the integrity of a plagiarist? Thirdly, by attacking the media, the letter shift the focus of the issue from “Wang Hui's plagarism problem” to “university's legitimacy”. The open letter is shameless!