Hunting Paper Tigers

/ by Jane Qiu /

China's netizens and scientists demand accountability.

China’s science community is getting into the practice of outing frauds such as the Paper Tiger. Model and photograph by Alice Cho

It’s an exciting discovery that never was. At a press conference organized by the forestry bureau of China’s Shanxi province last October, a farmer publicized photos he claimed to have taken of a South China tiger in the woods. As the species, last spotted in the wild in 1964, had been declared functionally extinct, the news caused much excitement around the world.

However, Fu De-zhi, a professor at the Beijing-based Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that the plants are not to scale in relation to the tiger and questioned the photos’ authenticity. In November a Chinese blogger posted an image of a tiger used in Chinese calendars; the creature and its pose look identical to those in the photographs “taken” by the farmer. The blog attracted tens of thousands of hits overnight, with many netizens pointing out additional flaws in the farmer’s photos.

Public outcry, bolstered by the Chinese media, has put tremendous pressure on government officials. China’s State Forestry Bureau ordered its Shanxi branch to set up a committee to investigate the incident. Although several researchers in forensics and image verification have concluded the photos are fake, officials in Shanxi have yet to release the results of their own investigation.

As the paper tiger incident unfolded in Shanxi, another wildlife photo, showing a herd of endangered Tibetan antelopes apparently undisturbed by a passing train, has also been determined to be a fake. The fabrication was exposed in February as a result of comments on the Chinese online photography forum Without Fear.

Liu Bing, a professor in the department of science, technology and society at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says the incidents reflect the Chinese public’s “growing demand” for accountability. “They want a say in public affairs, and demand clean governance and a just society,” says Liu. Even the Chinese media, especially the commercial sectors, has been a driving force in exposing fraud and corruption. And many of the incidents uncovered by China’s muckrakers have been science-related.

This trend toward transparency deviates significantly from China’s historic preoccupation with “face.” “Most Chinese are still very patriotic, but do not easily buy into a narrow-minded, nationalistic ideology anymore,” says Liu. Previously, people in China were willing to exaggerate achievements and conceal problems in science to impress the world. “We now realize that this had the opposite effect and has impeded the country’s development,” says Liu. Indeed, embracing the temporary embarrassment of revelations of scientific frauds is important for the country’s progress in building a more enlightened society and a viable science culture.   

Such grassroots changes are crucial for establishing a culture of accountability, says Fang Shi-min, a US-trained biochemist who now runs a website called “New Threads” that fights research misconduct in China. The website has exposed more than 700 cases of fraud and pseudoscience since 2000, though authorities have followed up on few of the allegations. In 2006, prompted by a string of high-profile scandals, the country’s science ministry issued a regulation on scientific misconduct and established an office to investigate reports of fraud. “But we have yet to see any real progress,” says Fang. 

An area in which the Chinese government is keen to show its determination to crack down on fraud and corruption is drug regulation. For many years the country’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) was plagued by rampant corruption, which cost lives in several incidents. In a controversial move, Zheng Xiao-yu, SFDA’s former chief, was executed last July for graft and dereliction of duty.

While acknowledging China’s will to clean up SFDA, Jia Wei, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s school of pharmacy, doubts that Zheng’s execution will lead to fundamental changes, calling SFDA’s issues “deeply rooted” in the regulatory system. “Radical reforms of SFDA and other government administrations,” he says, “are necessary for eradicating fraud and corruption in China.” In the meantime, China’s science-minded citizenry continues the hunt for “paper tigers.”

Originally published June 26, 2008

Tags ecology fabrication

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