Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fang Zhouzi

His name is Fang Shimin (方是民), but very few would recognize that name. His net-name, Fang Zhouzi, is however familiar, and very controversial, to thousands and perhaps millions of Chinese readers.

Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) literrally means a man who sails with an ark. But it was not Noah's Ark, as he would often painfully point out. It came from ancient Chinese literature, a kind of boat design that connects two separate boats together, in parallel. The boater would stand in between, with one foot on each boat. It is certainly not an easy way to sail. In fact, there is a Chinese idiom describing such people as who could not make up their mind (脚踏两只船).

However, Fang Zhouzi took up this name not to indicating he is a man who hesitates or wavers. He gives a new meaning to the phrase as someone who could master two distinct careers and life goals at the same time: one is science and the other the literature.

At about the turn of the century, Fang Zhouzi wrote a self-introduction which characterized himself as a biochemist, a poet, and a netizen. Time has changed. Today he is hardly a biochemist any more, and it has been a long time since he had written his last poem. But the courageous pursuit of both science and literature has not stopped. Above else, though, he had acquired yet another title which made him most (in)famous: China's self-appointed science cop, or fraud buster.

After obtaining his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Michigan State University in 1995, Dr. Fang had a brief, but successful research career at University of Rochester and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. His research led to a patent that provided him a small sum of income for years to come.

It was during those years that his strong interests in literature and history was magnified by the emerging new media: the Internet. He became an avid participant in the fledging online Chinese community, when simply displaying and inputting Chinese characters is a struggle by itself. In 1996, he founded the Chinese literature, history, and philosophy web site New Thread (新语丝), one of the few similar sites that has survived and prospered to this day.

Eventually, the excitement of the online community and the dull nature of a modern research career led him to make the biggest decision of his young life: abandoning the promising future in the academia and join the net-community as a full-time free-lance writer.

To combine his dual-interest in science and literature, Fang Zhouzi's initial intent was to write popular science articles and books for the Chinese audience. This becomes the much less controversial track of his career. Today, he writes several newspaper columns and has published more than a dozen books in China.

But as he got more familiar with the scientific and academic community in China, he was more and more astonished by the outrageous frauds he saw: plagiarism, falsification of resume and credentials, misinformation, pseudoscience, and outlandish data fabrication. In 2000, he started to write essays exposing some of those he saw on his New Thread web site. To his own surprise, this small effort ignited a huge reaction. He began to receive hundreds of email per day, reporting various fraud cases all over China. Out of a sense of duty, he investigated many of those and reported on his web site cases he had verified.

The web site New Thread took on an entire new meaning. Although work on her initial "literature, history, and philosophy" is still ongoing, she is much better known as a fraud-busting (打假) site. Pretty soon, the site is blocked in China. But the more persistent readers in China continued to find ways to access through mirror sites and other ways to get around the Great Firewall of China.

As Fang's efforts became more and more prominent, he also became the target of many libel lawsuits. The court system in China, often incompetent and even fraudulent itself, was not a fair battleground for him. He lost several cases in a hurry. But through it all, he defies unjust court orders and carries on. His work has also attracted significant international attention.

4 comments:

laoba said...

If you follow Cupa America, you'll see this kind of design is the best in terms of speed. Interestingly enough, I haven't seen the Chinese claimed that there were the inventor of such sailing boats yet ;-)

Anonymous said...

Trying to do the impossible, going against the current. That's stupid or heroic. FZZ is certainly the latter. Chinese Integrity sounds like oxymoron these days with all the fake everything everywhere, what Fang trying to do is really a drip of fresh water to a big pond of stinky mud. But still, it's a historical first for us Chinese. For that Dr Fang will be remembered by many for long time to come. Being a Chinese myself I feel ashamed by the narrow mindedness of my own people and the goverment today. May time heal everything for our future generations.

Anonymous said...

A true hero and a first in the Chinese history! Today the phrase Chinese Integrity sounds like oxymoron with all the fakes and corner-cutting everywhere. But overtime the better side of China will prevail. I am sure Dr Fang will be remembered for long time to come!

Anonymous said...

Despite the controversial over Dr Fang, I am in full support to him. Current trend of forging and faking sucks in not only the academic field, but many other fields as well. Dr Fang makes himself a watch dog for all these forgeries. I wish I could be another watch dog, if I had enough time and means of access to many research fields. (Zuotang Zhang, Ph.D. student in LLC program at UMBC, USA)