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.”
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.
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.