Questionable qualifications of disgraced top official

Shen Peiping, vice-governor of China's Yunnan province, is being investigated by the Communist Party for "serious disciplinary and legal violations", it was announced this week. While official media normally spotlight disgraced officials' extravagant spending, in this case the focus has been on qualifications - in particular Shen's swift rise up the academic ladder to become a professor.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection under the Communist Party is conducting the investigation as part of an ongoing government anti-corruption drive.

Shen, a former mayor of Pu'er in the south-western province of Yunnan - which borders on Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar and is famous for tea - was until last year a part-time professor in the Resources, Economics and Policy Research Centre of Beijing Normal University, which was jointly set up with the university by the Pu'er city government.

He was able to become a professor within five months of obtaining a PhD, according to the official Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, which pointed out that this was against normal regulations requiring several years of teaching experience for a high-level academic post.

It can take around a decade to become a full professor after a PhD is awarded - normally academics must be lecturers and associate professors before reaching this stage.

'Magical' PhD

According to his resume, Shen graduated from Baoshan Teachers College with a standard liberal arts degree, yet was able to become a doctoral student in Beijing Normal University's department of natural resources, considered a science department.

People's Daily referred to social media as questioning how a liberal arts graduate could 'magically' obtain a PhD in a scientific discipline.

Shen's doctorate was on the development of the Pu'er tea industry. He also wrote a number of academic papers on the subject together with Liu Xiemin, his PhD supervisor.

However, the newspaper also questioned how Shen was able to obtain a doctorate without first obtaining a masters degree. He is listed as having done "postgraduate courses in economics and management" at the Central Party correspondence school.

The newspaper points out that correspondence schools are not normally eligible for masters degree grants, but can be granted equivalence with masters degree requirements and can be a route to apply to degree-granting institutions such as universities for formal masters degrees.

The university's office of academic affairs reportedly said they had never seen Shen. Some had not even heard of him, but staff said that as there were so many external experts, this was normal.

Liu Xuemin, director of the department of resources, science and technology at the university, told the newspaper "it does not matter if there is a dispute" regarding Shen's credentials, as the hiring of external experts was not normally done according to the university's formal procedures.

Pages relating to Shen have been removed from the university website.

Credentials 'arms race'

More and more party officials have been gilding their resumes with doctorates.

Earlier this month, during the annual meeting of the Communist Party's Consultative Committee - a consultative body to the National People's Congress - it was revealed that of more than 60 senior officials sacked over the past two decades or so, around one in five had a PhD.

A Shanghai based academic who spoke on condition of anonymity described bids by party officials to burnish their resumes with advanced qualifications as a "credentials arms race".

A PhD had become a status symbol and a proportion of officials over the age of 50, many of whose education was affected by the decade-long closure of universities during the cultural revolution which began in the 1960s, are granted advanced degrees by Communist Party training schools or via correspondence courses.

Few complete their doctorates before becoming party officials, he said.

According to official resumes, as many as one in four top provincial communist party officials - an elite group of around 250 people including party chiefs and provincial governors - say they have a PhD

Shen is only the fourth provincial level official to be investigated as part of the anti-corruption campaign, as Chinese president Xi Jinping has vowed to go after top officials or 'tigers' not just lowly 'flies'.