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China’s overcrowded PhD programs breed abuse and fraud

Actor Zhai Tianlin won applause for playing a police officer who arrests a fraudster in a skit for this year’s Spring Festival Gala. Days later, he was being shamed for a fraud of his own—“faking” his PhD from the Beijing Film Academy.

Investigations revealed that China’s self-proclaimed “highest educated actor” had heavily plagiarized both his Master’s thesis and another paper published during his doctoral studies, and there were no records of his dissertation in China’s academic database CNKI (indeed, it was Zhai’s complete ignorance about CNKI during an earlier interview that helped expose him in the first place). While Zhai has since been stripped of his PhD and Peking University postdoc offer, the troubles at the top of China’s academic sector are far from over.

There were 18 PRC doctoral candidates in 1978; with 17 years, over 10,000 PhD diplomas had been handed out, the same number granted in the US with 100 years. In 2008, China replaced the US as the country conferring the most doctoral diplomas; in 2017, there were over 360,000 doctoral students on Chinese campuses, including 80,000 who were newly admitted. With government plans to create “Double First-Class” universities to compete with elite global institutions, these figures will only increase.

This rapid development has brought serious problems. According to NetEase, the delayed graduation rate of doctoral students climbed from 58.4 percent in 2002 to 65.7 percent in 2017. Some students spend seven to eight years in a three-year PhD program with no end in sight, predominately due to difficulty finishing their dissertation, or failure to publish at least two papers in accredited academic journals as per the graduation requirement—possibly because too many papers compete to be published at the same time.

Mounting academic pressure has led to increased student suicides and academic misconduct, including plagiarism and degree-fabrication. Doctoral student Liu Chunyang of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), whose body was discovered on Valentine’s Day, killed himself due to depression likely caused by his delayed graduation. The competitiveness also breeds abuse, as in the 2017 case of Yang Baode, a Xi’an Jiaotong University PhD student who committed suicide after mistreatment by his supervisor.

In contrast to the struggles of regular PhD students, many Chinese officials obtain their diploma without taking the national entrance exam or even any courses. “Officialdom hosts the largest PhD population,” Ji Baocheng, then president of Renmin University of China, declared at a higher education forum in 2009. Shi Dingguo, delegate of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and professor at the Beijing Language and Culture University, told the China Youth Daily that many officials seek the diploma in order to get a promotion, and some universities offer them in exchange for bribes.

“Doctoral studies are like gambling, with far more losers than winners,” a USTC PhD grad surnamed Zhou grumbled to Xinhua in the Zhai scandal’s aftermath. For Chinese officials, though, it’s very clear who wins.

Doctored Degrees is a story from our issue, “China Chic.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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