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Noted ‘New Left’ public intellectual Wang Hui accused of plagiarism

Professor Wang Hui of Tsinghua University, the former editor of the journal 《读书》(Dushu)  and a well-known standard bearer of China’s “New Left” intellectuals has been accused of plagiarism in an article this week published in an academic literary journal 《文艺研究》(Wenyi Yanjiu).   In the article, Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin charges that Wang Hui’s dissertation on Lu Xun, 《反抗绝望》(fangkan juewang), published in 1985 when he was a doctoral student at Nanjing University and later the basis of a book published in the early 1990s, contains several passages lifted from other works and used without citation.

Wang Hui responded to text messages from reporters yesterday:

“I am out of the country and right now it is the middle of the night.  A friend of mine texted me about this matter. I haven’t seen the article, and I don’t have this twenty-year old piece of writing right at my fingertips.  I hope that this matter can be clarified within the academic community.”

(Wang Hui is in Philadelphia this week as a keynote speaker at the AAS Annual Conference.  He is scheduled to give a talk on Saturday entitled “Reflections of Chinese Modernity.” )

Peking University professor Qian Liqun, one of the foremost authorities on Lu Xun, defended Wang Hui.  While he admitted that there may be passages that don’t conform to academic standards, Professor Qian said that it’s not so easy to simply label it as ‘plagiarism,’ adding that the central argument and analysis were Wang Hui’s alone, and that nobody can deny the important contributions Wang Hui has made to the study of Lu Xun.

Now, I haven’t read Wang Hui’s book  on Lu Xun, nor have I read through the entire article by Wang Binbin.  My goal here is not to make claims as to the validity of the charges or to try and defend Wang Hui, except to say that he, like all academics, deserves every opportunity to try and refute these charges.*  As Stephen Ambrose found out, fame doesn’t make one immune from charges of academic dishonesty.  Indeed, high profile academics can make very juicy targets.

But in Wang Hui’s case I wonder if there might be something else going on as well.  In addition to being a noted literary scholar, Wang Hui has also been a very high profile public intellectual who has criticized the Party for, among other things, abandoning its commitment to social justice and equality.  Many of his works have been translated into English and published abroad, the most recent being a collection of essays entitled, The End of Revolution and the Limits of Modernity.

Responding to such criticism can place the Party in an awkward ideological position.  The CCP leadership and their goons are generally well prepared to take on challenges from their right flank — whether in the form of uppity search engines or hunger-striking student protesters.  But charges from the  left — that the “Chinese characteristics” of socialism in the PRC today are not socialist enough — are both hard to ignore and difficult to counter.   In recent years, the CCP has abolished agricultural taxes in rural areas (as well as most social services, but that’s a topic for another post…) and has at least paid lip service to the idea of balancing rural development with the economic growth in China’s urban areas.  Nevertheless, economic inequalities continue to grow and class divisions in society remain a potentially unstable fault line in China’s harmonious facade.

Say what you want about the political impotence of public intellectuals, especially in an authoritarian state, but  nobody likes a nag, and considering that plagiarism is an endemic problem in Chinese academia, I can’t shake the fear that Wang Hui is being singled out or targeted for raisons politique.

It’s a situation that bears watching over the next few weeks.  Let’s see what happens.



*Those interested can see Joel Martinson’s very erudite and thorough critique of the critique below in the comments.

Update 2:

A reader sent me a link to Wang Binbin’s article and a lively comments section which I commend to everybody’s attention.  Topics range from Wang Binbin’s allegations, Wang Hui’s academic reputation and not a few generally lamenting the sorry state of Chinese academia.  Check it out.

2 Comments on Noted ‘New Left’ public intellectual Wang Hui accused of plagiarism

  1. Wang Binbin’s article is here. It’s pretty much a hatchet-job: the first half, which eviscerates Wang Hui’s prose style and undisciplined rhetoric, doesn’t really have much to do with the plagiarism claims in the second half.


    The reason I call what Wang does in this paragraph “self-deceiving” (掩耳盗铃式) plagiarism is because he makes a note instructing the reader to “consult” (参见) Li Zehou’s Intellectual History of Modern China. He uses no quote marks or colons, just a note to “consult” a particular book or writing. This is the form of plagiarism most often used by Wang in Against Despair. Here, we must analyze the use of “consult” as a citation….Asking the reader to “consult” a particular book or paper means: this document also contains a discussion of this issue, so the interested reader may “refer” (参考) to that work for further study. The use of “consult” in a note suggests that one’s own discussion is original and bears little connection to the particular book or paper cited; it suggests that one’s argument is not a “quote” of that author, just an example of great minds thinking alike. So the entire book mixes in the plagiarized work of other writers, adding only a “consult” note. Calling this “self-deceiving” plagiarism is entirely appropriate.

    WB slants his argument by generally ignoring the 参见 notes in the examples of “plagiarism” that he brings up — after the initial discussion, he presents his examples as if WH lifted from other authors without including any notes at all.

    Zhong Biao (钟彪) picks apart Wang Binbin’s paper here, noting first the widespread use of 参见 in citations and then running through the copious examples (see also this week’s Southern Weekly culture section). Although he doesn’t excuse a few places where Wang Hui’s citations could have been done more rigorously, he concludes that there was no intent to misrepresent the source of his borrowings.

    Interestingly, Zhong points out that when the book was first published in 1990, the post-89 climate led the publisher to omit the list of references at the back. Wang later added them back in for the reissue.

  2. // April 8, 2010 at 4:15 pm //

    the argument against Wang Hui is poor, ridiculus, actually a pretext, not something really serious, it is a pretext to hide hostility against his high level intellectuality. C.

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