In a Scientist's Fall, China Feels Robbed of Glory
Chen Jin, the Chinese computer scientist accused of fraud.
By DAVID BARBOZA
Published: May 15, 2006 (来源：http://www.EnglishCN.com)
SHANGHAI, May 14 — Not very long ago, China saw itself as a nation on the verge of a technological breakthrough.
But today, China appears shocked and shamed by a scandal that has already begun to tarnish that vision. It involves a top computer scientist, Chen Jin, who became a national hero in 2003 when he said he had created one of China's first digital signal processing computer chips, sophisticated microchips that can process digitized data for mobile phones, cameras and other electronic devices. His milestone seemed to hold the promise of helping close the enormous gaps with the West in science and technology.
On Friday, however, the government said it was all a fraud.
The distinguished scientist, the government said, had faked research conducted at Jiaotong University and simply stolen his chip designs from a foreign company, then passed them off as his own.
Mr. Chen, who has not admitted wrongdoing in the case, declined to comment when he was reached on Sunday by telephone. "This is not the right moment to talk," he said.
In a society where honor is particularly important and where the fear of public shame runs especially deep, the story of Mr. Chen has a profound resonance. Now, after all the honors and accolades bestowed on this 37-year-old favorite son, who returned home to China from the United States with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin six years ago, people here are beginning to question whether China is pushing its leading thinkers too hard to innovate and catch up with the West. Could Mr. Chen's downfall, they ask, represent an example of how even smart and successful people in China are being forced to cut corners to meet the nation's hyper-ambitious goals?
"There's now a national competition going on in China, and there are very high expectations on scholars returning from the West," said Bai Ruoyun, a media specialist from China who is now a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They're paid very handsome salaries and given lots of incentives to achieve. And in return, these scholars are expected to produce some concrete results."
China has been notorious for its intellectual property violations — and for stealing technology and skills from the West. But suddenly, things seem different, because technology, largely the Internet, is making it all too easy to detect such thefts.
Mr. Chen's downfall began last December when a whistle-blower posted a message on an Internet bulletin board here. The message, and letters to the government and his university, led to an avalanche of scrutiny and bad publicity. That ended Friday, when Mr. Chen was fired from his posts at Jiaotong University and stripped of his honors and privileges.
Although he was not well known in the West, Mr. Chen was considered one of China's brightest young scientists. He had received a huge grant from Beijing, headed his own research institute and was a dean at one of China's most prestigious universities. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had even visited his research lab.
Now, his university has labeled him "despicable" and Beijing has vowed that he will never again be allowed to do government research.
No longer content with being the world's low-cost factory floor, China desperately wants to show it can compete as a scientific and technological power. Mr. Chen symbolized their drive.
When he announced the results of his research at a series of press conferences here in 2003 and 2004, he smiled for the cameras and held up a glasslike plate bearing a new family of Chinese born computer chips, dubbed "the Hanxin," or China chip. Newspapers here called it a "breakthrough" that could help end foreign dominance of the chip industry.
How Mr. Chen and his team convinced a nation — and a large group of scientific experts in government and industry — is still unknown. Whether he or members of his research team face criminal charges is also unclear.
People who know Mr. Chen are perplexed. "He was really brilliant," said Yang Yunxia, a Microsoft employee here. "None of us can understand this."
But chip industry officials here say there is enormous pressure on Chinese scientists to create their own homegrown computer chips. They say the government has made it a major priority.
According to former colleagues, press accounts and his own writings, Mr. Chen was born in coastal Fujian Province in 1968, along with a twin brother. He earned a bachelor's degree at Tongji University in Shanghai and then, in 1991, moved to the United States to study computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 1998, he earned a Ph.D. there while working at Motorola's Austin research center. While in Texas, he wrote several scientific papers with Jacob A. Abraham, a professor of computer engineering and his dissertation supervisor.
"He was a good student," Professor Abraham said by telephone. "His Ph.D. research involved some innovative ideas for testing analog circuits."
In 2000, he told The Portland Oregonian that he was taking a sizable cut in his $80,000 salary at Motorola to return to China. Back home, he worked at Motorola's Suzhou research center, not far from Shanghai, before taking a job at Jiaotong University, the alma mater of former President Jiang Zemin.
By then, designing a powerful digital signal processing chip, or D.S.P., had become a priority of the government. Texas Instruments is a leader in the field. No Chinese company had been very successful.
Within two years, Mr. Chen announced what he said was his creation: a digital signal processor that could process 200 million instructions per second.
Mr. Chen and high-level government officials called a news conference in February 2003 to announce his achievement. The headlines in China read, "Homegrown Digital Chip Developed" and "China Makes Breakthrough in Chip Development."
Some articles said that China was spending billions of dollars buying foreign-made chips to put in electronics equipment. Now, they suggested, China could use its own.
Mr. Chen was named founding dean of the microelectronics school at Jiaotong. He directed a university research center. He was heavily financed by the government. And he was named a Chang Jiang Scholar, a title with privileges given to a select group of China's best young scholars, by Beijing. He was only 35.
Since then, Mr. Chen has overseen a lab of more than 100 researchers and created his own family of private companies. According to the state-owned press, several of these companies design chips, including one based in Texas that was founded with the help of a former Texas classmate.
When he announced creation of the even faster Hanxin II and III in 2004, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Reform and Development Commission and the Shanghai government were all helping to finance his operations. Chinese news reports said there were orders for 3.5 million chips, with possible deals from major companies like I.B.M.
But late last year, according to these reports, the whistle-blowers came forward. Some colleagues who had a dispute with Mr. Chen began contacting the government. They claimed, according to the news reports, that migrant workers had simply scratched away the name Motorola from a chip and replaced it with Hanxin. Presumably, that early version of Hanxin was a foreign company's chip, the specifications of which Mr. Chen or an associate could give to manufacturers to mass-produce under the Hanxin name.
The whistle-blowers also gave details of an array of companies that Mr. Chen operated to profit from the big government contracts he received, including a company called Ensoc, which was registered in Austin. Indeed, there were lengthy press reports about the chip scandal well before the government investigation was completed this year.
Friday, however, the official New China News agency reported that government had concluded that Mr. Chen had faked the findings. The government in Beijing canceled the Hanxin project and recalled all of its scientific funds.
"The underlying problem is that the Chinese government has not established a rule of law for research and development," said Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in an interview Sunday. Mr. Hundt is also the author of a forthcoming book, "In China's Shadow: The Crisis of American Entrepreneurship." He said he saw the story of Mr. Chen as a cautionary tale.
Sunday, on the campus of Jiaotong here, several students expressed dismay at the scandal, worrying about how it might affect their careers, but also wondering whether Mr. Chen was unfairly singled out in a country where plagiarism and academic scandals have come to seem endemic.
"Professor Chen is really unlucky," said a male student named Wu, who asked not to be further identified for fear of recriminations. "He lied and was caught. I think there are other people faking their research, but they haven't been caught yet. He's probably not the worst."
Another male student named Wang, who also would not give his first name and cited the same reason, said: "I'm not surprised by the scandal. Now a lot of professors are like businessmen. They are good at talking and promotion, and many of them have their own companies and make as much money as they can."
Not far away, a reporter was turned away from Mr. Chen's office; a guard said he was in it. Near the door was a large photograph of Mr. Chen giving a tour of his research lab to top officials, including the former leader of Hong Kong and Prime Minister Wen.