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Truth or dare

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2011-08-05 13:59

Truth or dare

Nation's best-known fighter of fraud, who has as many enemies as he has supporters, is fast building a reputation for integrity as well as intolerance.

Fang Zhouzi likes to pick fights. Figuratively, that is. Specifically, he likes to unveil fraud in academia. But sometimes, his fights spill into the non-academic arena too.

Take his most recent target, an inadvertent one, he says. Le Jia is a guest commentator on a wildly popular dating show. Fang revealed that the California-based school Le says he

Truth or dare

attended, Armstrong University, was a "wild chicken" institution that had ceased operating, using a Chinese phrase that means lacking proper credentials.

He also showed that the four-color personality analysis that Le claimed as his research achievement was actually the work of someone else - Dr Taylor Hartman to be exact.

According to one online poll, half the respondents felt Fang was "making a mountain out of a molehill and trespassing on others' territory". They said Le was just an entertainer, not a powerful politician.

Indeed, Le is not a typical Fang target.

"I select those that are representative and bring great harm to society, or those in powerful positions such as famous scientists or university presidents," the 43-year-old writer says.

He is alerted to many suspicious leads, from which "I have to be very selective because I don't have time to verify all of them".

He explains that he will not go around exposing every fake diploma of every successful person "unless that diploma leads directly to the holder's later success or the person constantly trumpets his educational background".

Fang cites the example of Tang Jun, whose claims of possessing a doctoral degree from California Institute of Technology, which Fang debunked in 2010, may not be "directly related to his being hired as president of Microsoft China in 2002, but he was incessantly trumpeting his exaggerated resume".

Fang's exposure of Tang's education created a domino effect leading to many Chinese business leaders hastily paring down their previously over-padded personal histories.

It is an open secret that many advanced degrees bestowed on China's politicians are not earned the usual way. Fang chooses not to touch that area because "the root cause is the schools selling diplomas". He adds that as long as the officials do not wade into academic waters there is no need to track them down. But this stand has been criticized by some as hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, Fang has been praised by others for his courage to attack academic titans, including the president of his own alma mater, University of Science and Technology of China. Zhu Qingshi is a Buddhist, which is not a problem Fang says, "but he uses Buddhism to guide his research".

Fang recounts an incident when Zhu enthused about a field trip up a mountain to find his Buddhist teacher waiting for him. "Is this the kind of thing a president of a science school should say?" Fang asks.

I ask Fang how he would react if one of his close friends, say, a heavyweight in science circles, commits fraud. Fang says, without hesitation, that he will expose it. "A true friend will be able to understand what I do," he adds.

"You don't think he can still be friends with you after that, do you? A more Chinese way is to ask him in private for an explanation," I insist.

"I may do that. But if his explanation is not satisfactory, I'll still publicize it," Fang says.

He explains that he has tried the e-mail approach, but this is usually ignored. "Publishing it (the fraud) forces the person to respond," he says.

And the responses have been numerous, some violent.

On Aug 29, 2010, Fang was ambushed outside his Beijing residence by two men. He reacted quickly and ran away, suffering just a bruise. Later, Xiao Chuanguo, a medical scientist, was found guilty of orchestrating the assault and was sentenced to five and a half months in jail.

Xiao lost a chance for promotion after a new operation method he claimed he had invented, and would win him a Nobel prize, was investigated by Fang and found to be not only lacking efficacy but also carried the risk of handicapping the patient. A subsequent survey by Southern Weekly found that all but one of the operations performed by Xiao had been ineffectual.

Fang says he was amazed by the competency displayed by the Beijing police, who nailed the suspect in less than a month. But he was not happy that Xiao got off so lightly in court. Peng Jian, Fang's lawyer in the case, says his client "has offended everyone there is in his 10 years of fighting fraud", adding "he is the Chinese person with the most enemies". Some threats are not even anonymous. "They would call and leave messages, using their real names and real numbers," Fang says.

Blasting TCM

In number if not in intensity, most of Fang's "enemies" are not those whose career prospects are hurt by him, but rather, whose devotion to traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, has been thwarted by Fang's no-nonsense approach toward a subject that invariably excites passions.

"We should separate TCM theories and practices. Its theories are an amalgam of superstition, witchcraft, philosophy and metaphysics, which are outdated and must be replaced with modern science," Fang expounds. "Unless someone calls it science, I would not call it pseudo-science. But it is definitely not science."

Its practices, such as herbal medicines and acupuncture, are based on experience and represent thousands of years of exploration. Fang says the best way is to subject them to scientific testing. "Does a remedy have efficacy? If it does, is it poisonous? A remedy of great efficacy could be too poisonous for use, for one."

In Fang's opinion, TCM testing is not as rigorous as internationally recognized standards. "Some may try it out on animals, and then publish a report based on just that. That is why not a single TCM has so far been approved internationally as a drug. You can only sell it as a nutritional supplement in places like the US."

"What would you do if you were put in charge of TCM regulation?" I ask.

"I will return it to the grassroots. Regular hospitals should not have a TCM department and must not give TCM prescriptions," Fang answers. "TCM practitioners can have their own organizations, which should not be endorsed by the government. They should not have the same status as doctors using modern medical science."

Fang notes that TCM is not unique. Many countries, including China's neighbors, have traditional medical practices. "Arabs, Africans and American-Indians all have their old way of treating patients. But only China has kept using it after modern medicine came along," he says. "The government should monitor it and put the remedies to test. Those passing the test will naturally become part of modern medicine."

Fang admits TCM cannot be banned, but says it should not be supported with public funds. He laughs at the rule that every hospital should maintain a TCM department. "It's always the least crowded room in the whole building." TCM drugs are "just for making money", he says. "So-called TCM hospitals are actually low-quality regular hospitals."

Fang says he has participated in debates with TCM experts. "I have made a systematic study of TCM and its classics. Some of my opponents have read only the editions that have expunged most of the ridiculous parts. I have also written a book on the topic. There is no way they can win the argument."

Fang also lambastes the equation of TCM with patriotism. "Saying how much TCM has conquered the outside world is simply false," he says.

Science vs religion

If Fang has offended a large swath of China with his anti-TCM stance, his views on religion may be disagreeable to even more people. "Religion wants you to believe blindly, while science wants you to doubt, to rely on evidence and logic. They have fundamental conflicts. I have always opposed efforts at reconciliation. Nowadays, some religious sects seem to co-exist peacefully with science. That's because they have understood their limits," he says.

Fang's initial interest in religion started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a surge in Chinese turning to Christianity. "I started reading the Bible so that I could persuade my relatives not to convert," he says. But he admits he failed in that task. A young man whose parents sought his help to talk him out of becoming a Christian is still very religious today. "We just don't talk about it when we meet. I didn't realize how difficult it is to change one's religious beliefs."

Almost as difficult as it has been for others who tried to change him. While attending Michigan State University, he was often approached by Christian proselytizers. "Those from Chinese churches were most irritable. They were passionate and wanted to debate with me. That forced me to think hard about the topic."

It was this that opened up his spigot for promoting science and atheism. "Many students from China claimed to be atheists, but they had not studied the Bible or engaged in deep thinking, so they were the easiest to convert." As for himself, "they wouldn't waste time on me as soon as they sized me up".

Under my pressure, Fang is willing to recognize that people have the right to believe in whatever they want. "Religion is psychologically comforting. It can bring cohesion," he says. But as a writer of popular science, he says he should insist on the freedom to criticize religion. "Freedom of religion means you can choose to believe or not to believe."

"What about the good morals that believers tend to have because of their fear of the afterlife?" I ask.

"Atheists can have good morals, too. And our morals are based on rational principles, not because some ancient book or preacher told us so. There is a survey that (shows) atheists have the highest morals and the lowest crime rate," he says.

Fang has written 19 books, many of which advocate the theory of evolution, among others. "As a student of biology, I used to debate with fellow students who had their doubts about evolution." But he has had few face-to-face arguments since then.

In recent months, Fang's support for genetically modified food, coupled with his disdain for the old Chinese custom of "sitting the month" (new mothers are not allowed to shower or go outdoors for one month after giving birth), have created the perfect storm against him. Some have gone to the extent of calling him "a CIA spy conspiring to bring a generation of young Chinese to doom".

I was curious to find out if there are any Chinese traditions that Fang takes kindly to.

"I love classical Chinese poetry," he says. "If I'm imprisoned and am allowed only one book, I would bring along Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Du Fu's volume, which I'll research thoroughly." He took the pen name Zhouzi (his real name is Fang Shimin) because "the two boats that keep me afloat are science and literature."

More surprising is his practice of tai chi. "I practice it every day, as fitness, though. I do not believe in yin, yang or the five elements."

Sometimes, Fang feels like a fish out of water, but "I do not see it as my failure. On the contrary, that is why I want to push for change - change for more fact-based, rational thinking, for honesty".

Judging from the tidal wave of curses hurled his way, he can be said to be a latter-day Pollyanna.

"People like me would have been burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. Nobody would have bothered to reason with me."