Beijing to Review Honors Theses in Attempt to Stamp Out Academic Fraud

March 6, 2019 Updated: March 6, 2019

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang vowed to stop academic fraud in 2019 during his speech to the Chinese regime’s rubber-stamp legislature, National People’s Congress, in Beijing on March 5.

“[We must] strengthen scientific research ethics and study attitudes, punish academic misconduct, and get rid of impetuousness,” Li said.

China has a large scientific and technology research field, which could develop even more fruitful innovations if a good academic environment can be maintained, Li added.

Li’s words reflect a broader issue of rampant academic fraud in China.

Academic Fraud in China

China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) announced its key tasks for the coming year on Feb. 22, when it said it would selectively review master’s and doctoral honors theses that were submitted in 2018.

According to the MOE, China has a total of 2,631 institutes of higher education, 1,244 of them qualified to issue a bachelor’s or higher degree.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on Feb. 28 that 604,000 students received a master’s or doctoral degree in 2018 after their honors theses were approved by universities.

The news soon became a trending topic on Chinese social media.

News China, a weekly magazine published by the state-run China News Service, reported on the announcement, noting that the MOE has previously reviewed academic theses in 2014, when they found that of 16,275 theses, 286 of them “did not meet standards.”

News China noted that netizens were often more effective than MOE at finding academic misdeeds.

“The sleuthing netizens have continually achieved success in spotting academic fraud,” the report said. In 2018, netizens found that Ye Xiaoxin, a top student at the Graduate School at Shenzhen, Tsinghua University, had received his doctorate degree by academic fraud. Tsinghua is among the country’s most prestigious universities.

In another case, netizens found that Liang Ying, a sociology professor at Nanjing University, had written 15 academic articles that were partly plagiarized.

In the most recent case of academic fraud, Chinese actor Zhai Tianlin was exposed by netizens as having not completed his master’s and doctorate degree requirements (but still claimed those degrees).

After the public uproar, Zhai’s alma mater, the Beijing Film Academy, launched an investigation. On Feb. 19, the Academy canceled Zhai’s doctorate degree, said that Zhai and his professor Chen Yi were involved in academic fraud, and removed the professor from the position of doctoral adviser.

Root Cause of Academic Fraud

News China’s report commented that the root cause of academic fraud is corruption: “[In China], both money and power can buy a diploma.”

Cheng Fangping, a professor of education at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told News China: “Some corrupt officials who earn diplomas don’t go to class, and just arrange for their assistants to attend the classes for them.”

The report estimated that 142 provincial or higher-level officials have been sacked since 2012, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping took power and initiated an anti-corruption campaign. According to their resumes, all of those officials’ graduate degrees have common characteristics: they received them in a short period; they aren’t related to their current work or previous educational background; and they are from the country’s most famous universities.

In May 2011, the MOE, together with the State Council’s Academic Degrees Committee and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, co-investigated the quality of doctorate degree theses from 2007 to 2011. The results revealed that half of the doctoral graduates are officials in different government departments.

“It’s a dance between officials and professors. Officials earn diplomas by using their power. Professors receive funding and resources [from the government] by selling the diplomas,” according to a Nov. 28, 2018, report by Banyuetan, an official bi-weekly magazine published by state-run media Xinhua.