If someone achieves fame in China, they become a personality, and once they’ve become a personality they simply can’t make errors in judgement. If they do happen to make errors in judgement, all they have to do is raise their chins and tough it out, going straight into denial mode.
This is true of those in academia and the government, and even for personalities in the business world. Big shots in academia, if they are found to have plagiarized the work of others, must definitely stick to their guns and, whatever happens, refuse to admit wrongdoing. If the attacks are too hard, you exit through the backdoor and prepare your lawsuit. If the attacks are soft, you respond by playing dead, issuing not so much as a whisper.
In sum, whatever happens you don’t ever admit you were wrong — and you definitely don’t apologize.
From time to time our government officials admit error, but this stems from institutional pressure and is done in a bid for leniency. Interview these characters once the storm has passed and they’ll all, to a man, act as though nothing ever happened. It’s only too clear now, as this ethos of stubborn denial infects our business leaders, that a culture of denial (死撑的文化) has become deep rooted in our society.
Some time back, Jun Tang (唐骏), the CEO of New Huadu Industrial Group and former chairman of Microsoft China, was accused by certain parties of having falsified his academic credentials. There was a lot of shoving back and forth, and the question of whether Tang had actually faked his credentials or not remained unclear until finally a diploma was produced from America’s Pacific Western University.
Who could have guessed that once a quick Internet search was done on this institution it would turn out to be just another so-called “wild chicken university” (野鸡大学) selling off diplomas?
Search a bunch of Jun Tang’s Chinese classmates and you’ll find that they’re all leaders in various fields. Among these, one of his classmates, Yu Jinyong (禹晋永), who is listed by some sources as chairman of the board at the so-called Generation Investment Group (中国世代投资集团) — perhaps because he feels he’s not famous enough, or because he feels a strong sense of fraternity — saw the need to step out and run defense for Jun Tang.
In the end, they’ve run a brave defense, but [Jun Tang’s] degree is still a wild chicken degree all the same, and the human flesh search has heaped all sorts of other scandals on his head. While Yu Jinyong has loudly proclaimed that he intends to sue in order to bring all of these accusers to justice, it’s easy to see that the case isn’t so simple after all. It’s already too late for Yu to shake himself off and come out clean.
Historically, the business world has paid little attention to academic credentials. Even in cases like that of nineteenth century textile giant Zhang Jian (张謇), who was a top scorer on the imperial examinations, people wouldn’t have factored his academic achievements into their business dealings with him. Zhang Jian wasn’t the only literatus of his time to dive into the private sector. But the old man’s successes owed to his business acumen, not to his book smarts.
In the period after economic reforms began, China’s new generation of businesspeople were principally farmers who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Not only were they uneducated, but many in fact were functionally illiterate. They might only have had primary school educations, but they could pride themselves on the fact that they had graduates of Peking University and Tsinghua University working under them.
In recent years, however, businesspeople have begun, and I’m not quite sure why, to pay a great deal of attention to academic credentials (perhaps this has something to do with the ease with which degrees can now be purchased?). If you’ve got some pull, you fork out cash and go earn your EMBA at an elite university. And there are those too who, unable to satisfy their craving for diplomas, go out and get a fake ones. So this Pacific Western University is no doubt making money hand over fist.
A politician using a fake diploma to grab a leadership position, and a scholar finagling his way into a teaching position are fundamentally different matters. And while fake diplomas may be all the rage in the business world, when you’re really sitting down to do business, no fool is going to buy this degree of yours, regardless of whether it’s real or not. For someone like Tang Jun to have several bogus PhDs might deceive young and impressional students if he publishes a book or speaks at a university. But the rest is just narcissism.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be exposed, coming clean at the first available moment is best. If that doesn’t happen, you can still stand up and apologize, saying, look, it was just vanity on my part. I’ll bet most Internet users would then lower their banners and silence their drums. Few people would then be interested in pursuing the matter to its death.
But instead these guys go into denial mode. It’s not just Jun Tang who denies everything. His former classmates step up to help him deny everything. The more they issue denials, the more holes open up, and the more holes open up the more determinedly they issue denials. They’ve denied this whole matter from a tragedy to a comedy.
Just look. Now Yu Jinyong only has to utter a word on his microblog to draw peals of laughter and scorn from the stands. Regardless of whether or not all of the revelations about business trickery appearing online are true, I’m quite sure these men never imagined that they would be reduced so quickly from business success stories to national buffoons.
At one time our nation’s scholars all held the conviction that our neighbor Japan is a culture of shame, a culture where people were unwilling to admit they were wrong. When people refuse to believe there is shame in doing something wrong, coming clean becomes the only indignity. And in the end, it’s us who have become a culture of shame, where no one has compunctions about doing wrong, and where everyone regards compunction as a mark of shame.
This is even truer if you believe you’re a personality. If you’re found to have done wrong, it’s as though the sky is collapsing on your head. In fact, these people see things the other way around — it’s they who have been wronged. After all, they are surrounded by cheats — in fact, everyone’s a cheat — so why must they singled out for censure?
We might even say that our melodic culture has changed into a culture of shame, and the reason for this transformation is our increasingly serious climate of fakery. When people have become entirely desensitized to fakery, the natural response of those who get caught out is to resort to still more acts of fakery, glossing over the original act of fakery.
Even if things get a bit hot on the Internet, how long can the heat really last, after all? Within a few years, they’ll be squeaky clean again. At the very worst, the Internet can only pile up scorn and ridicule. And anyone, theoretically at least, can slide right past [the scandal] — whether they are politicians, academics or businesspeople. Once they’re past it, there’s no need even to remake themselves. They just wipe their faces clean and go right on being the bigwigs they always were.
This editorial appeared originally in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.
Further Reading:
The Ruminations Of A Reporter Who Once Covered Jun Tang,” ESWN, August 6, 2010
Chinese Debate Allegations of Fraudulent Credentials,” Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2010
Former Microsoft chief Tang Jun fights back,” People’s Daily Online (English), July 7, 2010

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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