In China, an easy route to academic glory
By Stephen Wong
SHANGHAI - Often overlooked in the "miracle" of China's rapid economic
development over the past three decades is the "miracle" in the massive number
of PhD graduates it now produces.
China is expected to replace Japan as the world's second-biggest economy -
after the United States - this year or the next in terms of gross domestic
product. But by 2008, it had already surpassed the US as the world's top
producer of PhD holders - despite post-graduate programs only resuming in 1978
after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
Unlike national pride over China's economic success, the expansion of PhD
programs is viewed with suspicion, due to
allegations that corruption in the education system has severely compromised
According to statistics released by Yang Yuliang, the director of the Academic
Degree Commission under the State Council - China's cabinet, China's first PhD
programs in 1978 had only 18 candidates. In 1982, the first doctorates were
awarded to six of the 18.
However, post-graduate programs increased exponentially with the fast expansion
of tertiary education in 1999 as a result of the government's policy to
"industrialize" universities. The government believed that higher enrollment
would create a generation of educated urbanites, boosting domestic consumption
and reducing dependence on exports after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Graduate enrollment in PhD programs has grown by some 23.4% annually since
1982. In comparison, the average annual growth rate for students enrolling in
master's degrees during the same period was 15%. By the end of 2007, China had
awarded 240,000 doctorate degrees.
However, the number of qualified professors needed to supervise such doctorate
programs has not kept pace, raising fears that quantity is not being matched by
According to Yang, each qualified Chinese professor has to supervise 5.77
doctorate candidates, much higher than the international level. A dozen
professors from Anhui province last week wrote to the Ministry of Education
asking why the educational system was failing to produce world-class scientists
and scholars. The question was also raised by Qian Xuesen, the father of
China's space industry, before his death in October.
There is also concern over the often opaque relationship between universities
and businessmen and officials, many of whom are enrolled in doctoral studies.
Professors say that businessmen and officials often use cash, power or
influence to avoid doing the work necessary to obtain PhDs.
Sources from the Graduate School of Chongqing-based Southwest University said
that about half of all senior party and government officials in the districts
and counties of Chongqing municipality were PhD candidates at their school. And
Chongqing is by no means an isolated case.
It is so commonplace nowadays for senior officials to have doctorate degrees
that the media were surprised that Zhang Ping, the recently appointed minister
in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission - China's top
economic planning body - only has a diploma from a vocational secondary school.
Zhang later earned plaudits for not exaggerating his academic background.
Demand for doctorate degrees has grown as the authorities in Beijing often base
promotion decisions purely on a candidate's educational background. For many
officials, higher degrees are also a way to gain face.
Officials see universities as being under their jurisdiction. In turn,
officials' need for higher degrees has become a business opportunity for
universities. Many universities (even some foreign ones) have set up enrollment
offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, promising diplomas. In some
programs, officials can earn their degree from home without having to attend
While for most ordinary Chinese earning a doctorate degree remains an arduous
process, powerful Chinese officials are now offered a so-called "green route" -
from entrance examination to graduation. Entrance exams are generally organized
by the university independently, and to attract students with political clout
some colleges and universities even offer "exam-free admission".
Once enrolled, privileged students do not need to take the courses seriously;
in many cases sending their secretaries to take the classes and exams.
Professor Cai Jiming at Tsinghua University remarked that "most degrees earned
by Chinese officials are questionable".
Wang Yi, the former chairman of China's Securities Regulatory Commission, who
was arrested in February on suspicion of taking bribes, is one example. His
curriculum vitae listed him as a doctor of economics, but his master's degree
was in history, and it took him only two years to obtain his PhD.
Wang's case drew a sarcastic response from Professor Ge Jianxiong of Fudan
University in Shanghai, "It is pretty impressive that Wang was admitted to the
highly sought after doctorate program of economics He must not only be a quick
learner, but also a capable multi-tasker to complete his course, pass his
exams, finish his dissertation and pass his oral defense within only two years.
"To achieve this while at the same time being also engaged in his no doubt
hectic official business. If not a genius, he must be a brilliant talent,"
added Ge. He called for an investigation into the acquisition of Wang's
doctoral degree, but his demand was not met.
Observers say that Chinese officials obtaining dubious doctorate degrees not
only wastes scarce education resources, it has also triggered a crisis of
confidence in the education system, undermining genuine PhDs gained in China.
Yet some Chinese universities say they need to meet officials' wishes if they
want to ensure their financial survival.
A vice president of a university based in central China's Zhengzhou City, who
wished to remain anonymous, said most universities relied on government
funding, especially for research funds, projects and university development
plans. If one university dared to refuse admittance to a powerful official,
another university would quickly say "yes". Officials may also consider the
rebuttal as a humiliation and seek revenge.
For the PhD tutors of high-ranking officials, this teacher-student relationship
can be a win-win situation: it enables the tutors to get more access to
research projects and resources, while they can piggyback their powerful
students' clout to gain other resources.
Most universities in China are public, with their presidents assigned by the
government and their funds mostly allocated by the government. To some degree,
university officials themselves are government officials - they are often
transferred from or to a government department, and so are linked with
government officials from other branches.
At universities, the influence and status of an employee is not his academic
title but his administrative ranking. The higher the ranking, the more power
the person has. So university employees often target higher administrative
rankings than decent academic titles.
Ironically, this has led to a situation where government officials are queuing
up for higher academic degrees while university officials and professors are
competing for higher administrative rankings.
Academic corruption in collusion with corruption in officialdom has become
common in China. As a result, Chinese universities struggle to produce great
scholars while Chinese officialdom lacks sophisticated politicians. Famous
mathematician and Harvard professor, Shing-Tung Yau, in a speech at Nankai
University, lambasted China's academic corruption as "the national stigma".
Growing public anger over widespread academic corruption and other problems in
education recently led Premier Wen Jiabao to fire the minister of education,
Zhou Ji, who had been in office since 2003.
Stephen Wong is a freelance contributor from Shanghai.