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Plagiarism and China’s future economic development

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In Brief

Much has been made about whether China is a rising power that can go the distance. The numbers posted by the world’s soon to be second largest economy indicate that China has already gone this distance and is positioned for more growth, but what happens behind the numbers is not always as clear-cut. China’s economic miracle, built largely on major capital investments and inexpensive labour, is now attempting to shift to the next level of economic development, built upon innovation and design or the value-add components of economic growth. China’s universities will be the source of much of the brainpower propelling China to this next level. But problems endemic to China’s higher education system, specifically plagiarism and the lack of academic integrity, will render this journey quite difficult.

When given English-language writing assignments, it is common for Chinese students to rely upon translating Chinese sources into English and passing it off as their own work, or simply copying and pasting directly from Wikipedia.[1]


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Acknowledgement from students that copying the ideas of another person, combined with threats of a failing grade and being expelled from the class still did not deter the students from plagiarising. It is not such a surprise that this behavior was not easily curtailed when plagiarism extends into the upper echelons of Chinese academia.[2] Understanding why plagiarism and a lack of academic integrity are embedded in the Chinese higher education system is important for understanding why China will find it difficult to take its economic growth to the next level.

Plagiarism and the lack of academic integrity it engenders are intricately connected to the larger debate about intellectual property rights (IPR) in China and the government’s promoted idea of a harmonious society (和谐社会) to support stability. Western countries, either unilaterally or through the WTO, continually threaten to impose sanctions against China for piracy of products ranging from movies and computer software to semiconductors. IPR are hard to enforce from without, and only gain traction when there is an indigenous respect for such rights.

Running counter to IPR enforcement is the idea of community, which is very strong in China. Harmony is a historically important value in Chinese society, vigorously marketed by the Communist government to encourage stability. A strong sense of community promotes both stability and harmony, but subsumes the individual. The powerful force of community that envelopes the individual begets the idea that all parts of the community can be used by the members of that community any way that they see fit, including ideas. In this paradigm, it would be absurd for an individual to lay claim to an idea and receive credit from other individuals for that idea when the community is supposed to be paramount to the individual. IPR cut across the idea of community and the ownership of ideas because they create a competitive marketplace of individual ideas, which could ultimately undermine the stability and harmony of the community.

This explanation may seem abstract, but taking this explanation and applying it to a university classroom illuminates why plagiarism will remain a serious problem for China. When students write, they often transcribe rote statements learned since primary school without any substantive analysis of or critical thinking about those statements. When asked, students do not know where this wisdom originated, except that year in and year out their teachers told them that this must be learned. Ask a mainland Chinese student why Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and at most  the response will be ‘because it is.’

The ‘why’ behind these statements is not taught in school and the tools with which to figure out the ‘why’ are generally withheld from the students to perpetuate the idea of community. These statements belong to no one and are not attributed to any particular source because they belong to the community. Due to repetition, these ideas also begin to have no intrinsic value. As ideas belong to the community, they can be used and reproduced by the students as they see fit. Community ideas are the norm and there is no respect for individual ownership, so the students fail to see any value in crediting the source of the original idea.

The notions of harmony and stability, combined with the triumph of the community over the individual, are not inherently bad. However, these ideas serve as a possible explanation for the prevalence of plagiarism in Chinese higher education, and why academic integrity is an idea whose time has not yet come in China. Until plagiarism is curtailed and academic integrity instilled in Chinese students, China’s journey to the next stage of economic growth is going to be fraught with peril without the necessary protections to encourage innovative thought.

Peter Friedman is an Associate at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, New York, and prior to joining Akin Gump in 2009, he was a Yale-China Teaching Fellow at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, where he taught US politics and culture classes.


This article is a finalist in the recent EAF Emerging Scholars competition.








[1] The author was a Yale-China teaching fellow at Sun-Yat sen University (中山大学) in Guangzhou, China for the 2008-09 academic year. He taught courses about US politics and American culture. His observations in this article are taken directly from his time in the classroom.

[2] Some examples include: an associate professor at Tongji University resigned from his position after plagiarising a test given to his students from a test given at another college; the vice president of Southwest Jiaotong University was found guilty of lifting large parts of his doctorate dissertation from the work of a Nobel-nominated Chinese economist; the president of Wuhan University of Technology was alleged to have copied the work of a Chilean scientist in a paper submitted to a national science conference.

9 responses to “Plagiarism and China’s future economic development”

  1. China became the world’s second largest economy in 1992 according to Angus Maddison’s estimates, and in 2001 according to the official PPP-based comparisons from the IMF which draw on the results of the latest round of the International Comparison Program. The statement that China is “soon to be” the second largest economy is therefore wrong: it is derived by converting the relevant GDPs into a common currency using exchange rates – a spurious procedure which assumes, contrary to the fact, that the price level is the same in all of the comparator countries.

  2. Spot on. It had to be said. I’m glad you sought to rationalize it as I have always wondered what direction this would lead China’s education process and ultimately the broader economy. I often wonder what happens in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. I think we have all experienced or observed this often of Chinese college and university students (in China as well as abroad), and I’ve often wondered what was being created from these so called graduates.

  3. I acknowledge that there are fundamental differences in values placed on community/country relative to individuals between China and East Asian countries as compared to West countries and that has been embedded in the education system.

    There is no doubt about it in my mind and I interpret that as part of the differences in values between the two societies. I also expect that difference may play a role in shape the future average of the “value” system for human beings.

    In that sense, Peter Friedman has made an important contribution by pointing that out and highlighted.

    However, that does not mean the whole education system in East Asia and China in particular is based on plagiarism and non-acknowledgement of inventions and ideas. That would be a gross over simplistic presentation and highly misleading.

    I can just use two or three important and well known examples to show why that presentation is problematic and wrong. I guess most people with enough knowledge of China are likely to know Confucius, Marxism, Mao Zedong thought. They show that the Chinese, even under communism, acknowledge property rights.

    Some high profile plagiarism cases in the Chinese academic circle or at large are roundly firmly condemned in China, especially by many academic staff and intellectuals including students that can be seen from internet social or academic websites. They are equated to crime equivalent, in my view.

    Having said that, I would like to argue that there is also a difference in the emphasis of referencing. While there is a tendance of insufficient referencing in some or most papers by Chinese authors, there is an equal tendance of “over” referencing by some western authors, in my view. Some of the references are unhelpful and probably irrelevant.

    Referencing is seen as very important, especially for less well known authors so they “have” to show they have done enough research and are on top of the materials and tops. So many publications may not have enough own real materials but use referencing to strengthen their reputation. That can be a potential problem for research, development and advance.

    Of course, there is an equal danger in insufficient referencing on the other hand.

  4. It would make the points of my earlier clear by stating the following:

    1. There is a difference in terms of the weights given to individuals and community/nation between East Asian countries and the mainstream western countries. There may be a case of optimal weighting, although even optimal weighting may mean different weighting in different countries.

    2. There are both tendances of under-referencing and over-referencing in the world.

    3. Under-referencing has the danger of under valuing the sources and plagiarism.

    4. Over-referencing has the danger of referencing for referencing sake and using referencing rather than own creativity to shore up a paper, document and etc. That is to say, some papers or documents may not have their own real substance, but use impressive references as a cover for poor quality.

    5. Again, there may be a case for optimal referencing. Yet again, optimal referencing may vary between countries, even professions.

  5. An important point that I left out just a moment ago is that Peter Friedman may have inadvertently created an undesirable and wrong impression that the Chinese don’t value property rights especially intellectual ones and plagiarism is deemed as the right thing by the Chinese.

    Clearly that is not the case in China and the absolute majority despise plagiarism.

  6. While the author may have spent one year teaching in China, his article is made of more fluff than stuff. Sure, China has a history of rote memorization. But that’s not why students at the university level plagiarize. I find his conclusions rather simplistic and condescending, as if the Chinese were ignorant animals, with only instinctual abilities to reproduce what they were fed. They have the intelligence to compete in the international intellectual market. There are other factors at work here.

    I taught for four years at one of China’s top universities, and had to address the issue of plagiarism myself. When I asked students why there is so much cheating, and if its because they only memorize they said, ‘no, it’s because it is easier, there are good rewards for it, and we can get away with it.’ [rough paraphrase] They KNOW it’s wrong, particularly in the academic setting, and especially at big-name schools like Wuhan University, and ZhongShan University (中山大学). But if they also KNOW they can get away with it, and they also KNOW that it will get them a better grade which leads to a better job, they are willing to make that sacrifice.

    Plagiarism comes down to a matter of priorities. When students read news headlines and stories about the number of jobless graduates and the growing income gap, the extreme inflation in housing prices, and whey they feel pressure of their parents to get a good job, especially when they are the only child, the decision is fairly easy. On top of that, who wants to work hard at writing an English paper for their foreign teacher when their roommates are all playing the latest online game? Get the paper done and get to playing.

    Let’s stop all this nonsense about rote-memorization and community ownership. I agree that this is a major problem that China will have to address, and if they can’t rein it in they will not become the global player they would like to be. But it’s not because they ‘just don’t get it’. They just don’t want it.

  7. This article is dead on…or at least from a foreigners perspective. Obviously the disagreements above from the natives or so-called “natives” reflect…well, I won’t go there. I live in China and have spent a lot of time with college students. Wuhan ‘native’, Friedman is not saying they don’t get it. He is saying that there is a problem with the system and it starts at the top. It is not addressed by the government, teachers allow it to save their jobs and the school administrators don’t give a rip. Why on earth would the students care? This problem reaches so far beyond the classroom as Friedman suggests.

    I remember being in Qingdao in 2003 and seeing a coffee shop called “Starsbuck” with a deer in the exact same logo instead of the scary looking whatever kind of lady Starbucks has. Why not be original and make up the most ridiculous name and logo you can think of? Answer: that would require some work and creativity. Just easier to copy somebody else’s ideas. I could point to a million more examples from clothing to shoes, to, well…you name it!

    Anybody seen the new iPed that China is selling? I mean, c’mon!!

    Lincoln Fung…”the absolute majority despise plagiarism.” C’mon man, who are you kidding?

    My friend just judged and English speaking competition the other day and the 2nd place contestant copied Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech verbatim and the only reason she didn’t win was because of his vote.

    This is much bigger than this issue of referencing works in a research paper. At least if someone puts in the time to reference their work it shows that they have done some original work. Here’s another great article about the lack of innovation by Chinese companies:

    This is such a complicated issue and is deeply tied to our respective worldviews. I love many things about China and people can argue all day about IPR and all that. But Friedman is dead on that until this issue gets changed China will simply just not be a major competitor on the world stage.

  8. I have visited China several times in the last two years to teach Business in a number of universities on behalf of an Australia-based instition. The aim is to provide Australian business qualifications to successful students.
    I recall my first visit and was simply dismayed by the low level of English required to even attend my classes, let alone the inability to understand relatively simple business “jargon”.
    95% of the students were unable to participate in a simple dialogue with me regarding the weather.
    Remarkably each and every student provided assignments in perfect “King’s English”. I made the mistake of failing several students….. The repercussions were swift and hard: The Chinese consultate in Australia contacted my employer with threats of legal action, cancellation of contracts deportation etc.
    The parents of the students jumped up and down, complaining to the Faculty head, which lead to a long and strenuous meeting with me.
    It was “suggested” to me that the students be given 2nd, 3rd etc chances to pass as they “work hard” and deserve a chance.
    I quietly asked other more experienced western teachers onsite about solutions. Their response was to let the students pass, turn a blind eye to cheating be done with it. “Quite simply, mate. Let it go. Just treat this as a holiday and go shopping in your spare time. DOn’t waste it on re-sits”.

    That was my first trip. The subsequent trips were treated by me as a shopping holiday, with 2 hour lectures and a bit of “marking of assignments” thrown in to break the monotony.

    After my 5th trip recently, I decided never to go back as a teacher as it simply grates against my sense of integrity.

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