Academic Plagiarism and East Asian Students: Chinese Pedagogic Traditions Conflict with USA Laws & Policies

The principle differences between US and Chinese definitions and attitudes towards plagiarism and copyright violations should be better understood by pedagogic and legal professionals alike in order to correctly handle such issues in academic settings as well as in the corporate world. Si Wang writes in “Fraud Goes to School in China” in the October 12, 2010 Epoch Times article, “Chinese law has been either nonexistent or lenient on plagiarism.” Conversely, plagiarism and copyright violations are very serious issues that receive substantial attention in the USA.

In California, plagiarism may be generally defined as the wrongful or unlawful use of the words or ideas of another without citing the original source thereof. Legally plagiarism may be an actionable violation of copyright law which in turn protects the original words and ideas of an author for an extended period of time. A person whose work is plagiarized might be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the offending party for wrongfully copying his or her words or ideas without properly crediting their source. Academically, plagiarism may be grounds for suspension and expulsion from any academic program. Therefore it is important to carefully cite the source of any words and ideas of another that you use in any work you create, and there are several well-known academic guidebooks that try to help writers do just that.

In California schools and universities, teachers and administrators should make sure to carefully educate their students about plagiarism and how to avoid it. This may be particularly true in academic environments with foreign students from China where formal notions of plagiarism and intellectual property law are arguably young, vague, weak, and under-enforced; of course, it should go without saying that schools and their staff and faculty must be very careful to not act in a prejudicial or discriminatory manner towards these students.

In a March 28, 2011 University of Southern California publication, US-China Today, Jasmine Ako writes about “Unraveling Plagiarism in China.” She explains:

“The concept of plagiarism – called “piao qie” [sic] in Chinese – does exist in China, but […] it isn’t systematically defined or vigorously condemned in academia. This is in contrast to the U.S., where rules against plagiarism are typically directly addressed in the education system and are often included in course syllabi.”

“[…] China’s culture of mimicry is another possible source of plagiarism. For the civil service examination that functioned from 1000 to 1900, potential government officials were chosen based on their ability to memorize and regurgitate quotes and passages in their essays. Confucius, the preeminent philosopher who has influenced the Chinese mindset and way of thinking for centuries, always argued that he wasn’t creating anything, but merely transmitting the insights of sages from earlier days.”

““Stamping out plagiarism means you are elevating out individual ideas; you’re saying your ideas have value and they should be protected,” explains Peter Friedman who taught politics and history as a Yale University Teaching Fellow in China. “That goes against the grain of the entire societal construct in China and what the government is protecting.””

In his May 26, 2010 Forbes.com article, “China’s Plagiarism Problem,” Mr. Friedman writes:

“Running counter to IPR” [Intellectual Property Rights] “enforcement is the idea of community, which is very strong in China. Harmony is a historically important value in Chinese society, vigorously marketed by the Communist government to encourage stability. A strong sense of community promotes both stability and harmony, but subsumes the individual. The powerful force of community that envelopes the individual begets the idea that all parts of the community can be used by the members of that community any way that they see fit, including ideas. In this paradigm it would be absurd for an individual to lay claim to an idea and receive credit from other individuals for that idea when the community is supposed to be paramount to the individual. IPR cut across the idea of community and the ownership of ideas because they create a competitive marketplace of individual ideas, which could ultimately undermine the stability and harmony of the community.” …. “As ideas belong to the community, they can be used and reproduced by the students as they see fit. Community ideas are the norm and there is no respect for individual ownership, so the students fail to see any value in crediting the source of the original idea.”

And in 2005 Dr. Chris Shei at the University of Wales Swansea, UK writes in “Plagiarism, Chinese Learners and Western Convention”:

“The Chinese learning culture generally emphasizes [sic] a substantial period of imitation before creativity can be contemplated. In writing, this frequently translates into quoting other people’s work as an integrated part of one’s writing. Moreover, the Chinese culture does not emphasize [sic] attribution of cited text, which is often construed as plagiarism by the Western culture. From the learner’s point of view, however, what is taken as plagiarism is often one of the routes Chinese learners use to achieve competency in writing. This article suggests judging suspicious cases of plagiarism on the ground of student effort spent in researching and writing, rather than on the formalities of citation. In terms of plagiarism administration, methods for avoiding plagiarism and detecting plagiarism are discussed, although it is recommended that teachers of Chinese learners be more pedagogically-minded, rather than concentrating on “discipline”.” [Emphases added.]

Arguably, there may be a fine line – a line that needs to be further studied by legal comparativists and argued by Education Law and Intellectual Property Law attorneys – between dutiful and obeisant mimicry as a learning technique and passing somebody else’s ideas or work off as your own. One would presume that in every culture, there is a clear notion of deceit and theft. Such concepts lie at the heart of plagiarism and intellectual property law violations. While China may have a view towards plagiarism and intellectual property theft that is vague or lax in comparison to ours in the USA, the cultural differences between the Far East and the West here might be overstated by certain scholars or other interested parties in a disingenuous effort to excuse the theft and deceit of plagiarists seeking competitive advantages without having to spawn the creativity and expend the energy necessary to accomplish any unique achievement.