BEIJING - Censors have told Chinese media to stop discussing plagiarism claims against the Communist Party's star legal scholar, who is accused of copying parts of his new book from the writings of a once-jailed dissident.
Reporters and scholars involved said propaganda officials last week ordered no more reporting of the claims against Zhou Yezhong, a professor at Wuhan University in central China.
Zhou reached the peak of official favour in December, 2002, when he lectured then new Communist party chief Hu Jintao and the Politburo, the party's inner-circle, on constitutional law. His subsequent career has been marked with promotions and accolades.
But a month ago, two Chinese newspapers accused him of unacknowledged copying from Wang Tiancheng - a former Peking University lecturer who spent five years in jail from 1992 for trying to establish an opposition party.
Wang, now a businessman, told Reuters he was "outraged" after he bought Zhou's book, "The Constitutional Interpretation of Republicanism", and realised how much of it bore a word-for-word resemblance to his own writings from the 1990s.
Emptiness of Party Ideology
Wang said he is demanding that Zhou offer an explanation, and also considering suing him, to also make a larger point.
"He's risen to the top by repackaging fashionable terms - human rights, democracy, rule of law - for the Party's ends," Wang said of Zhou.
"But he reflects the emptiness of the Party's ideology. They've got nothing and so he needs to raid the opposition camp for any new ideas," he added.
The Propaganda Department last week ordered the China Youth Daily - a state-run paper that sometimes tests official boundaries - to suppress a dissection of Zhou's book by a liberal law professor, He Weifang, according to He and Chinese reporters.
But He's essay and discussion of the case continue to spread on China's Internet.
Zhou, 42, is one of several scholars who have brought intellectual prestige to the Communist Party's efforts to yoke formerly taboo ideas about human rights, rule of law, and constitutional government to its own needs.
His 280-page book that appeared in September is a survey of ideas of "republican" government by engaged citizens from ancient Greece to modern times.
"Developing citizens' freedoms is the source of consolidating a republic's strength", wrote Zhou and a student co-author.
But He, a well-known Peking University professor who has campaigned against China's anti-subversion laws, said Zhou took dozens of sections from Wang and other liberal Chinese scholars without attribution.
Zhou declined Reuters' repeated phone requests to discuss the plagiarism claims, and he did not respond to a phone message.
But in late November he told a China Youth Daily reporter that the publisher took out the citations to Wang's writings from the 1990s because citing a dissident was taboo.
"I fully obey scholarly norms, and don't have any problems", Zhou told the paper.
Wang said the People's Publishing House, which issued the book, has refused his request for a written statement supporting Zhou's claim.
He, the law professor, told Reuters, he did not accept Zhou's explanation. "Other scholars are also not acknowledged; this is much more than Wang Tiancheng," He said.
He said he is also angry that Zhou used "liberal" ideas to justify the Communist Party's current political controls, especially the Party's domination of China's weak parliament - the National People's Congress.
"He strains very hard to make liberal political thought consistent with the official line, and that doesn't fit", He told Reuters.