Thursday, July 22, 2010

Speak of Motivation

People were asking why I had not commented on Wang Hui’s plagiarism scandal.  It’s not that I didn’t care. Truth is, I had selfish reasons for keeping silent.  The two recent open letters that stirred the water, one by Chinese scholars and the other by international scholars, have been dubbed as tit for tat, and I have friends in both camps of signatories.  Is my opinion on this more important than friendship?  For a while I was unsure. That was the main concern.  Another – somewhat petty – motivation was to steer clear of suspicion of personal grudge.

Not that I know Wang Hui personally.  Not really. I was a long-time reader of Du Shu (读书) magazine, and I liked it so much that I even subscribed from the US, which is quite expensive.  In my opinion it was during Wang Hui’s tenure as the editor that the magazine was the most interesting, thought provoking, and richest in content.  (With a different editor now, the magazine has become somewhat boring.)  I had always thought it’d be fun to chat with Wang Hui if there were a chance.

A few months ago, I attended the “Red Legacy in China” forum at Harvard University;   Wang Hui was one of the speakers. This was the first time I saw Wang Hui in person.  After the meeting, I went up to say Hello in the hallway.  I had already heard about his plagiarism scandal then, but I had no intention of mentioning it (and never did).  All I wanted to say was how much I enjoyed Du Shu under his editorship, with a slim hope for an intelligent conversation.

What I got was totally unexpected.  Wang Hui showed nothing but rudeness to me.  So much so that later Bob, who was waiting for me aside at the time, said, “Wow, that guy’s a real asshole. Either that, or he really needed to go to the bathroom.”

What was Wang Hui’s motivation for treating me, a stranger and a “fan” no less, so rudely?  Perhaps because he is too important to be polite to someone not as famous as he is?  Or maybe because I’m a Chinese, not an American who could be of more use to him?  (If so, he might be right about that.)  Of course, equally possible is that I just happened upon him at a bad moment, when he was too upset about the plagiarism accusation to behave normally.

Look, I have no basis to second guess his motivation. I simply don’t know him well enough, so what happened in the halls of Harvard is moot.  Though my personal impression of him was crashed by that brief encounter, my conscience tells me as a writer I shouldn’t allow the unpleasant experience to dictate my opinions on his plagiarism accusations.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the support letter from the eighty-some international scholars suggests that Wang Hui is the victim of “unmotivated attacks from the media culture” and that “ordinary cultural politics inside the university are criminalized.”  A signatory believes that “the ‘real reason’ Wang Hui came under attack was his political opinions.”

This is certainly possible, but again I don’t have enough evidence to verify it.  As such I decided to ask a friend, a signatory of the Chinese letter calling for an objective investigation, why he signed the letter.  Here is his answer:
[in translation]
“I know a letter like this may not do much, but I am too disgusted by current academic corruption and counterfeiting.  To make a small sound is still something.  I read the joint letter by the overseas scholars who support Wang Hui; [they] seem to be either Wang’s students or from the New Left?  Why does the left also play factionalism? Don’t they know what a thing China’s present-day universities really are?  In their letter they completely equate China’s universities to those in developed countries."
This friend, by the way, is not in any political faction, though at times he showed sympathy to the New Left. From our many years of acquaintance, he is an honest scholar who has my trust.  At least in his case as a signatory, there isn’t a political motivation.

Now, what is my opinion on Wang Hui’s plagiarism accusations? When first reading Wang Binbin’s article, I was put off by his unconcealed pleasure in finding a big target.  There is a Chinese saying, "Words are like the writer (文如其人)".  Judging from his writing style, Wang Binbin is not someone I would admire.  Given the history of Wang Binbin as I read from the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised if his motivation was more personal (fame-thirst?) than political.  Also, at least half of the evidences Wang Binbin provided against Wang Hui is pretty weak IMO.

This said, one or two of the pieces of evidence could be potentially damaging, not to mention that a couple of internet researchers have added more findings supporting the plagiarism charge.  Without reading Wang Hui’s dissertation/book, I can’t really make a confident judgment, but an objective investigation makes sense to me.  Motivations might not be measurable, plagiarism should be.  As the Chinese open letter says, if Wang Hui is innocent, the investigation could clear his name.  At a minimum, the investigation would help establish the academic norm (which is lacking in present China) against counterfeit work.  To ensure objectivity, the investigation committee should invite scholars from both sides (of the debate, and the Pacific).

To end this piece, I must say it was only after great hesitation that I wrote it, for the reasons mentioned earlier.  I’m an independent writer who refuses to get involved in any political parties, and I intend to keep this position for the rest of my life.  As such please do not place me in a particular camp. 


Richard said...

Thanks for writing this Xujun. You are a class act (not that we didn't all know that already).

Xujun Eberlein said...

Richard, that's very kind of you to say so. Thanks! Hope things are going well with you - I look forward to hearing about your new business.

Xujun Eberlein said...

A reader contacted me to say she had trouble leaving comments, despite multiple attempts. (She's not the first one complained; I've no idea what caused the problem). I'm posting her comment here for her:

Jocelyn said:

I enjoyed reading this post -- and, I must say, your response to Wang Hui's behavior towards you at Harvard reminded me of my husband's experiences.

He went to a conference last month in Boston, and recounted (with disgust) how several established Chinese scholars wouldn't give him the time of day, but seemed to light up at the sight of a foreigner (non-Chinese). He finds this behavior despicable.

Anyhow, I agree with Richard -- you are a class act. ;-)