A recent New York Times article titled “Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent” provides an interesting counter to Deirdre McCloskey’s assertion that modern growth required bourgeois virtue, not just old fashioned greed. A fundament of bourgeois virtue is honesty in dealing with others: a horror of prevarication, mendacity, and lying.
China, as we know, has grown spectacularly. It seems set to soon take its place among the developed nations. Yet Chinese society, as currently constituted, lacks just this fundament of bourgeois virtue. In particular lying about achievements, authorship, and ownership is routine, accepted, and little punished.
Plagiarism by Chinese academics is rampant. Recently a group of Chinese scientific journals installed an automatic plagiarism check on submissions. Nearly one third were found to contain pirated content. Similarly one third of 6,000 scientists at six of China’s top institutions admitted on a survey that “they had engaged in plagiarism or the outright fabrication of research data.”
Dishonesty permeates the academic system from top to bottom. Cheating and fraud begin in high school: hundreds of web sites offer ghost written essays and question answers for the competitions for college entrance.
Cheating continues at college and beyond. As reported in the Times, “Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students.”
Nor does it appear that this systematic fraud is confined to the academic world. Airline safety in China has been hazarded by widespread lying by pilots about their qualifications. Theft of intellectual property is routine in the business world. Tainted milk flows into the distribution system.
All these activities are of course carried on in the bourgeois west. Think Enron, think Bernie Madoff, think of Harvard Professor Marc Hauser. But as Hauser’s cases illustrates, the sanctions and loss of face associated with being caught are vastly greater here.
Deirdre McCloskey points to the association in eighteenth century England between two innovations: the rise of bourgeois virtue, and the Industrial Revolution. But modern experience in China suggests this is an accidental conjunction. Economic growth may demand many social qualities, but virtue does not seem to be one of them.