Declining morals erode ivory tower
Updated: 2012-09-08 08:23
By Bai Ping (China Daily)
The prestigious Peking University, better known as Beida among Chinese, has started its new school year with a bang, but not quite the kind of bang it would have wanted.
Zou Hengfu, a Harvard-trained economist and former professor of the university, alleged a few weeks ago in a micro blog that Beida dons had preyed on attractive waitresses at the campus restaurant Mengtaoyuan, or Dream of Peach Garden. He added insult to injury by refusing to provide proofs to the university's discipline inspectors who have taken up the matter and vowed to leave no stones unturned to unravel the truth.
But now all eyes are on Zou, because Beida has filed a defamation suit against him after an agonizing but futile wait for him to come forward with evidence. Many people are cheering him on, hoping his claims would trigger a campaign against corruption in Chinese universities, while some skeptics shrug the allegation off as a trick by a disgruntled professor to get public attention and sympathy.
The Chinese public has long been worried about declining professional ethics and abuse of public trust in universities, whose reputation has been dragged through mud after a string of scandals in recent years.
In one such case reported by the Chinese media, Professor Wang Xueming (not his real name) of Beida thrust himself into the national spotlight in 2011 after police detained a young woman of the Naxi ethnic group from Yunnan province because she was suspected to have extorted 300,000 yuan ($47,288) from him. The professor had a two-year-long extramarital affair with the high school graduate, who was 26 years younger to him. The two fell out after he failed to deliver on his promise to help her enter the university.
Zou has upped the stakes considerably this time, because he has accused some Beida college deans and department chairs of having sexual relations with the waitresses. Using an account that has been verified and tied to his real identity, Zou has also claimed that staff members of campus hotels used the "backdoor" to enter degree programs, although he didn't imply that any sexual favors were involved.
However, seasoned observers are reluctant to read too much into Zou's accusations and rhetoric, because they suspect he could turn out to be just another professorial prankster online, who leaves supporters high and dry after creating an uproar.
Top Chinese universities allow their faculties to participate in the market by selling their skills and ideas. Since oft-quoted professors earn more money from consultations and speaking engagements, it has become customary for some to make controversial or sensational remarks, or even create pseudo-events. For example, in 2009, Zhou Yijun, then an associate professor of journalism at Beida, created a media storm when he wrote in a blog that CCTV's prime-time anchorwoman Fang Jing had been detained a month earlier for hosting a program to acquire military intelligence.
But when Fang threatened to seek legal recourse for defamation, Zhou apologized, and said he hoped she would return from her leave as soon as possible. And so she did, resurfacing as host of another CCTV news program. The two had apparently reconciled, with no reason given, to the bewilderment of the public.
Could Zou, who now works as a senior economist at the World Bank, be making up some of the stories to get back to Beida after his humiliating dismissal years ago?
If so, will Beida pursue the case till the end, at the cost of washing its dirty linen in public? Zou, who taught at the university for nine years from 1998, had then claimed he knew about the hanky-panky of some university bigwigs.
It's sad to see the hoopla unfold, because universities are supposed to be the conscience-keepers of society and professors are entrusted to lead the mission of training students to possess the highest ethical and intellectual standards.
The author is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: email@example.com
(China Daily 09/08/2012 page5)