In China, foreign awards face growing cynicism among academic community after European institution controversy

by Dannie Peng at

On the afternoon of April 21, an institution called the European Academy of Natural Sciences (EANS) held a ceremony in Beijing to welcome its new members.

It was a grand occasion. The vice-president of the academy presented six Chinese scholars with membership certificates and gold badges, and Nobel laureate Thomas C. Südhof, a German-American biochemist, posed with them for a photo.

An article published the next day by a consulting firm called the China Development Research Institute showed a picture of Südhof with the institute’s president, Wang Tong, who was holding a certificate after he had been elected an “academician”. The article said Südhof congratulated Wang in a speech.

But in recent days, the legitimacy and authority of the academy as well as its awards have sparked a tsunami of controversy in China, with a growing number of mainland media outlets and members of the research community questioning whether it is an academic honour or a business deal.

Some investigations have revealed that it is possible to pay to join the academy. Domestic media outlet Hongxing Xinwen, for example, consulted an agency that provides application services and was told that applicants could definitely be selected by paying 180,000 yuan (US$24,900).

The criticism and suspicion surrounding this honour signals a growing cynicism and immunity to foreign awards in Chinese society: as the country gradually emerges as a global leader in science and technology, honours bestowed by Western countries are now subject to more scrutiny.

“It is now time to critically examine the phenomenon of [worshipping] ‘foreign academicians’,” a social media user said.