What I found particularly interesting is his observation that "The fact that I have encountered this much plagiarism at Beida tells me something about the behavior of other professors and administrators here. They must tolerate a lot of it, and when they detect it, they cover it up without serious punishment, probably because they do not want to lose face. If they did punish it, it would not be this frequent."
Indeed, Fang Zhouzi and New Thread had exposed quite a few plagiarism cases involving Beida professors in the past. None of them had received any adequate punishments.
Professor Stearns has confirmed to this blog that he is in fact the author of this letter. With his permission, the full text of the letter, taken from the New Thread web site, where a Chinese translation is also available, is presented here:
To my students in Beijing, Fall 2007:
While grading papers today I encountered two more cases
of plagiarism. One was sophisticated but serious. The
other was so blatant that it was almost unbelievable.
That makes a total of three students who have failed my
courses because of plagiarism.
If I had not warned you and given you the opportunity
honestly to correct your essays, there would have been
several more. I thank those of you who were honest and
showed me what you had copied.
Plagiarism disturbs me greatly, both because it corrodes
my relationship with you as my students, and because it
tells me things about China and Beida that neither you
nor I want to hear.
It corrodes my relationship with you because I work
hard to be a good teacher, I take time to prepare good
lectures, and I spend many hours providing detailed
feedback on essays. It is hard work. You cannot imagine
what it is like to correct the details of the 500th
essay until you have done it yourself. I do that to help
you learn to think more clearly, to express yourself
convincingly, and to develop your intellectual power,
your ability to understand the world. I also do it
because I value you, I value your ideas, and I think
the world will be a better place when you can all think
clearly and behave intelligently. Later in life, some of
you will be leaders with important positions. I want you
to be competent and honest, for I have seen too often
what terrible things can happen when leaders are
incompetent and dishonest. Leadership aside, I want all
of you to be able to create value in your lives, whatever
you end up doing, and you cannot do that if you deceive.
When a student whom I am teaching steals words and ideas
from an author without acknowledgment, I feel cheated,
dragged down into the mud. I ask myself, why should I
teach people who knowingly deceive me? Life is too short
for such things. There are better things to do.
Disturbingly, plagiarism fits into a larger pattern of
behavior in China. China ignores international
intellectual property rights. Beida sees nothing wrong
in copying my textbook, for example, in complete violation
of international copyright agreements, causing me to lose
income, stealing from me quite directly. No one in China
seems to care. I can buy DVDs in stores and on the street
for about one US dollar. They cost $20-30 outside China;
the artists who produced them are losing enormous amounts
of stolen income, billions of dollars each year. China has
become notorious for producing defective products that have
to be recalled because the pose health threats to consumers.
A recent cartoon in an American newspaper shows the Central
Committee reacting to an accusation that they have violated
human rights. The response? "Wait until they see what we
put in their toothpaste next!" Corruption is a serious
problem in a booming economy. For example, in the mining
industry, about 5000 miners die each year and mine owners
cut corners in violation of the law. The social fabric
breaks when workers die because owners are greedy. The
Mandate of Heaven is lost.
China appears to have lost her way. Confucius said, do not
do to others what you do not want them to do to you. He
also said, a gentleman is honest. Honesty and reciprocity
are the basis of trust and community. We cannot get along
in a world filled with deceit and defection; such a world
becomes a Hobbesian war of all against all, nasty and
brutal. We cannot do science if we cannot trust what others
publish. There is no reason to try to replicate a result
if it cannot be trusted. It would not be worth the effort.
Without replication there can be no shared knowledge that
is tested and trustworthy - that is, no science. Without
science, there can be no technology. And without technology,
there can be no steady increase in productivity, economic
growth, and a better life for all.
The penalties for plagiarism that you will encounter later
in life are very serious. If you do it as a graduate
student, you can be expelled from university, and you will
not get your degree. If you do it as a faculty member, you
can lose your job. I know you may not believe that, for the
sociology professor at Beida who translated an entire book
into Chinese and published it with his name on it only lost
his administrative positions but kept his professorship and
salary. But things are not like that elsewhere. When
plagiarism is detected in the United States, it can end the
career of the person who did it. That is also true in
The fact that I have encountered this much plagiarism at
Beida tells me something about the behavior of other
professors and administrators here. They must tolerate a
lot of it, and when they detect it, they cover it up
without serious punishment, probably because they do not
want to lose face. If they did punish it, it would not be
I have greatly enjoyed teaching some of you. I have
encountered young minds here that are as good as any in
the world. Many of you are brave, most of you work very
hard, most of you are honest, and some of you are brilliant.
But I am leaving with very mixed feelings. It is quite sad
that so many promising young Chinese think it is necessary
to cheat to succeed. They damage themselves even more than
the people from whom they steal and the people whom they
deceive with stolen words.
Sincerely, Steve Stearns