China needs a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy

Around the time that Transparency International released its recent Global Corruption Report: Education, the Chinese government announced a new proposal to help stem the misuse of research funds. This is a positive sign of its growing awareness of and sensitivity to corruption in education.

However, establishing academic committees composed of professors, associate professors and senior professionals to supervise funds may not resolve the research misappropriation and misuse issue.

Furthermore, it does not solve the issue of plagiarism or fraudulent and-or fabricated research results, or increase the productivity and efficiency of China’s current and future research projects and related funding and audit mechanisms.

Why it will not work

Primarily, research in universities and research institutes cannot be entirely separated from the other functions of the higher education sector.

Teaching, extension services, fundraising and commercialisation of research are all interlinked, necessitating a more comprehensive approach to stemming corruption in the entire higher education sector and not only in research funding.

Given the roles of teaching, research and extension services in academic promotion, and their relationship in terms of feedback, generation of research ideas and practical application to society and its needs, a single-pronged approach to tackling research fund misappropriation and research fraud may not be enough.

Secondly, guanxi – use of interpersonal relationships to improve or advance oneself in society, work and-or academia – is part of an enduring cultural practice in China that takes time to change.

I am not saying the practice extends to the entire academic and research community, but its role and influence in Chinese society has been widely accepted and acknowledged.

Thus, establishing academic committees within universities may place committee members in a difficult situation, aside from just creating a new academic bureaucracy within a different organisation, the university.

Thirdly, the extremely competitive environment of contemporary academia and research puts pressure on academics and researchers to perform in a way that only looks at outcomes rather than efforts and efficiency. It should be noted that not all research projects can have positive outcomes and that a negative result can and should also be considered as a research outcome.

With academia and the research community located within an extremely commercialised environment, the rise of academic and research fraud and-or corruption becomes ongoing practice.

Lastly, the rules and dynamics for research funding application and implementation need to be re-evaluated, revised and enhanced. It is not enough to patch up the numerous cracks in the wall. Sometimes it becomes necessary to tear the wall down and build a new one.

Key research funding issues

My recent discussion with a Chinese academic presented key issues related to Chinese research funding, including the assumption of unavailability of laboratories and equipment, and research teams that include university scholars currently engaged in further studies (mostly outside China).

Equipment purchase funding is often awarded in spite of the availability of equipment or laboratories. Research teams are funded with key members who are not actually engaged in the project.

For example, my Hong Kong-based (since 2010) Chinese friend has not been involved or engaged in an ongoing research project in spite of being part of the research team. When asked why she agreed to this, guanxi and the fear of negative implications for her future academic career were advanced as the reason. In fact, her exact words were: “Nothing will happen to them, but something will happen to me”.

The abovementioned rationale supports Transparency International’s four factors fostering corruption in education including: reduced public funding; an emphasis on securing other funding sources; increased administrative autonomy; and the growing need for national and international recognition in an increasingly competitive higher education market.

Although Chinese research funding has been increasing, it should be noted that there are more researchers – from China, Hong Kong and other countries with Chinese research collaboration – competing for the larger research funds available.

Increased administrative autonomy, securing other (internal and external) funding, and the need for national and international recognition only enhance the competitive environment in both academia and the research community.

Taking all of these in a Chinese cultural context that strongly emphasises guanxi, the recipe for academic and research fraud and corruption is nearly perfect.


I believe undertaking a multi-pronged approach to curb both academic and research fraud and-or corruption is necessary.

Steps would include re-evaluating and redesigning China’s research funding mechanism, including its assessment, evaluation and audit procedures; reducing the competitive nature of academia and research; and incorporating credits for research's relevance to teaching and extension rather than just its commercialisation potential.

There is a need to consider the researchers’ efforts rather than simply looking at research outcomes. Knowledge production and application are not limited to its commercial value, while research outcomes are not always limited to success in finding new products, ideas or concepts.

Furthermore, the need to reduce the extremely competitive environment for academics and researchers should be looked at, and measures to balance competitiveness, productivity and social responsibility need to be implemented.

In our contemporary academic and research environment, there has been too much focus on research productivity, publications and rankings, to the extent that key roles and functions of teaching and extension services are almost unseen and-or unappreciated, especially in relation to career advancement.

Although I cannot claim to be an expert on China’s academic and research fraud and corruption, I hope to have highlighted unspoken truths from some Chinese academics and researchers who may be too afraid to speak out.

Remember, one cannot cure a disease unless one knows its root cause. Similarly, China’s academic and research corruption needs to be understood in a more comprehensive manner prior to prescribing an effective and sustainable cure.

* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.