Controversy in the process to build world class universities in China

Singtao Daily reported that Harvard mathematician Yau Shingtung's criticism on the research practice in China has been censored.

The controversy is two fold

  1. widespread plagiarism
  2. that some professors in top universities in the US, are "cheating" in their double tenure arrangement with universities in China; among them he named one of his student, Tian Gang, a tenure professor in the mecca of mathematics, Princeton University
Some background informations

  • Yao himself is one of the best mathematicians in the world today, Fields Medalist of 1982, defnitely the best ethnic Chinese mathematician alive; the famous Calabi-Yau manifold represents perhaps one of the most important tools in our pursue for the theory of everything in physics, the string theory (viz. the Calabi-Yau compactification reconciles the difference of 10 dimensional string space to the 4 dimensional space we live in)
  • What is Fields Medal? It is the equivalent of Nobel Prize for mathematics. In fact, one can argue, a Fields Medalist is more "prestigeous" than a Nobel Prize laureate, because it is awarded every 4 years and only to those under the age of 40, e.g. Princeton professor (chair of department) Andrew Wiles, whose contribution is as significantl as Yau's (finishing the proof of Fermat's theorem), did not received the award and is not going to because he is now over 40
  • Tian Gang is among the early waves of graduate students China sent to the US in the mid 1980s (Ph.D. in Mathematics, Harvard under Yau, 1988; M.S., Peking University 1984; B.S., Nanking University, 1982 )
  • The summer vacation in Princeton last from late May to early September, about 3.5 months, Tian can afford to spend 3.5 months in Beijing, which is quite significant, almost 1/2 of the time he spends in Princeton. But Tian will also have to attend various conferences worldwide in the summer, so that may take away 1-2 months of his time.

In my opinion

  • Yau is right in criticizing the widespread plagiarism, such practice is not helping China's bid to world class university
  • It is stupid (and wrong) for the Ministry of Education to cernsor constructive criticism from Yau
  • The building of world class research and education is one of the most important (and often overlooked by hostile factions in US and Japan) elements of China's "peaceful development" or "peaceful rise"

However, Yau's accusation of Tian is more controversial, in my view. It is related to the building of world class university in China that was widely reported earlier in the blogosphere and MSM. Yao has accused Tian of "cheating" by collecting as much as RMB1M for 1-2 months visiting professorship in Beijing University (while the base salary in Princeton is perhaps about the same or slightly higher)

  • Many US professors (mostly ethnic Chinese) have accepted similar arrangement in the past in HK and Taiwan
  • Nobel laureate in physics, Yang Chenning, has had dual appointment in Chinese University of HK and SUNY (Stony Brook), although the financial arrangement has not been disclosed
  • Many retired professors in US, took up professorship and department chairs in the universities in HK, making as much as RMB1.5-2M base salary (plus other benefits), in addition to about 0.5M of retirement stipend from the US
  • In a effort to attract world class talent, universities in China have to pay an ultra-high premium, 10x the average annual professor salary in China for 1-2 month of visiting commitment. Does this represent the force of the market, or as Yau has accused, "cheating" or "dishonesty"?
  • Are our scientists, making US$70-130k in US universities, like professor Yau himself, underpaid? or overpaid? considering senior investment bankers and business excetutives who make US$0.3-2M+ on average, and some for multi-millions?
  • Would the efforts of China's universities to attract talent this way really help to raise the standard of research and education in China? is 1-2 month presence enough to cultivate the research atmosphere and ensure sufficient exchange? Do universities in China have any other feasible option?

China's Ministry of Education should encourage discussion of the issues above, which might provide reasons (albeit controveersial) for such activities and defend the reputations of people like Tian, instead of silencing them.


  1. related post by ESWN
  2. Yau has also made less controversial and very to the point criticism (the student he accused of plagiarism seems to also point to Tian) to the academic research in China, which I largely agree
  3. Yau's auto-biography in a lecture is a very interesting treat.


1 comment:

Sun Bin said...

yes, it does.

there is small difference in the case of Stony Brook vs Beijing University.
1. Beijing is already attracting the best talents in its student pool. so the incremental effect of a star may not mean much
2. whether there is spillover effect like stony brook has (it is easy to spill because there are so many good universities and talent around NY) is still unknown
3. one can also argue that, with the scale of 1.3bn people in China, China can afford (and deserve) to hire the best talent, the question is, will such summer appointment pave way for the real full time commitment from top scientists?
4. let's set aside the accusation of plagiarism for the time being. is it wrong for Tian to accept dual salary? if this is what the 3 sides have agreed willingly? (note tian has only recently moved from his endowed professorship from MIT to Princeton and it is likely that Princeton is aware of his Beijing arrangement)