Storm in a Teacup: Yu Jianrong vs. Fang Zhouzi

In The Freedom and Perils of Internet Writing in China, Yu Jie came up with a taxonomy of three types of Internet writers in China: scholars, literary authors and political commentators.  Things are supposed to be relatively calm among the scholars -- unless a fight breaks out!  The story below is less about any Internet fight than about how the Internet is changing academic discourse and media conduct and relationships.  In the past, any discussion of this episode would consist of letters to the editor relegated to the back pages without mass participation.  In the Internet era, the media reporter felt it necessary to post a response on the Internet for the benefit of the mass audience.  For me, that is a sea change.

Yes, a fight indeed broke out between two individuals over the Internet.  The first is Fang Zhouzi, who has made a reputation for himself by exposing academic fraud and corruption.  The other individual is a social scientist who was chosen by Nanfang Weekend in 2004 as a praiseworthy person.

This Internet fight began when Fang Zhou's website Xinyusi published an essay by someone named Yan Jin, in which these claims were made:

  1. Yu claims to be a researcher, but he is only a research associate;
  2. According to veteran Xinhua reporter Mr. W., Yu had praised certain Hunan peasants right defenders, of whom at least four have bad records or had been jailed;
  3. In two research projects of Yu, the work could not have been done within the stated timeframe;
  4. Yu published a Harvard University speech that was several tens of thousands of words in length and therefore could not have been the original speech if it had to be translated and read out.

Without getting into the substantive details of how the battle was being fought (the heading of this post is "Storm in a teacup" but it must be stated that Yu Jianrong had an adequate defense against the charges and then the fight degenerated into personality issues), let us fast-forward to the media story.  Even the mainstream media began to pay attention to this hard-fought, drawn-out battle.  On November 10, 2005, Nanfang Weekend featured an article titled: Yu Jianrong vs. Fang Zhouzi: A Battle of Words In Which Both Sides Lost.  Structurally, the article was divided into four sections:

The Yu Jianrong interview contains this footnote: "此文未经于建嵘审阅,有删节" (translation: this essay has not been reviewed by Yu Jianrong; there are some omissions).  The Fang Zhouzi interview contains this footnote: "此文已经方舟子审阅,有删节" (translation: this essay has been reviewed by Fang Zhouzi; there are some omissions).  You will note that the treatment is asymmetrical.

Here is the translation of the opening section of the interview with Fang:

Reporter: As a well-known website for exposing academic fraud, what is Xinyusi's criteria for publishing reports that are submitted to it?

Fang: I don't care if the language of the essay is fierce or not.  I only want to know if there is any basis.  If the essay lists facts, I will verify the facts; if the essay contains logical inferences, I will apply logical analysis.  It must be reasonable and fact-based before I will publish something.  The minimum standard is not to use the essay or comments from a newly emerged ID because it should come from a trustworthy source.

Reporter: Then is the person named Yin Jin a new ID?

Fang: Yan Jin is not.  His essay was mailed to me, as opposed to those haphazard posts at forums.  Xinyusi permits essays to be published under pseudonyms, but the author must disclose his/her true identity to me and I will keep it confidential.  As to whether he has some personal issues with Yu Jianrong, I don't think it is important.  Many informers have personal reasons to inform, or perhaps it is due to professional competition.  But I don't care what his motives are.  I only read the essay to see if it is reasonable and fact-based.

Reporter: Under the anonymity system, how can you protect the credibility of Xinyusi?  Those who are exposed will say: What anonymous informant?  It is Fan Zhouzi himself who is causing trouble.

Fang Zhouzi: The determination of truth in academics depends on the proof.  If the process of proving is transparent, then the result is reasonable.  The informant is unimportant, and therefore there is no need to speculate about his identity.  Even if I were Yan Jin, it does not take away his right to inform.  Besides he is not me, because I never publish under other names. 

After reading the Nanfang Weekend article, Fang Zhouzi went on to publish "Nanfang Weekend has really degenerated now!"  Here is a section:

Before I was interviewed by Nanfang Weekend, my sole request was to let me read and accept the portions that involve me and the interview portion with me.  The interview was based upon the notes taken by the reporter at the scene (no recording).  Afterwards, he sent me the edited copy along with the section of the article that involves me.  I did not make a lot of changes, and I sent it back.  The reporter confirmed that he received it.

But the interview that was published was not the same version that I accepted.  About half of it was gone, and some of the conversation was edited left and right.  It no longer represented my original intent.  If the editing was done due to space restrictions, the reporter should have shown me the final copy.  In the published article, the section written by the reporter was totally unrelated to the section that I accepted.  Nothing concerning me was reviewed by me and the sections that I accepted were missing.

They made promises and they broke them.  This is against journalistic ethics, and it is even against human ethics.  I never imagined that Nanfang Weekend would degenerate to playing games like the tabloids such as Nanfang People's Weekly.

As a tribute to the strength of the Internet, the Nanfang Weekend reporter opted to use the Internet to post a rebuttal (via Tinya Club):


I am the Nanfang Weekend reporter who was responsible for the battle of Fang vs. Yu.  I would like to state some commonsense as well as clarify certain things in Fang Zhouzi's essay "Nanfang Weekend has really degenerated now!"  I would also like to share my views of this whole affair.

First, on account of "the published interview record was not the version that I accepted", Fang Zhouzi believes that Nanfang Weekend "broke its word."  The truth was that Nanfang Weekend did not promise Fang Zhouzi that the publication of the interview required his "acceptance."

There was an agreement by Nanfang Weekend to let him "read the article," but there was never any agreement according to the way that Fang Zhouzi described in his attack article.

Fang Zhouzi wrote: "Before I was interviewed by Nanfang Weekend, my sole request was to let me read and accept the portions that involve me and the interview with me."

This is inaccurate.  I offered something similar, but he was not the one who demanded it.  The content of the agreement is also obviously different.  When I called Fang Zhouzi the first time, I voluntarily offered: "After the interview portion is done, I will send it over for you to reach, so that you can make corrections at those places where my memory was faulty."

The matter happened some time ago, and I can only remember that I said something like that.  But the keywords "interview essay ... faulty memory ... correction" are definitely correct.

The agreement between Fang Zhouzi and me (that is to say, the agreement that I reached as a representative of Nanfang Weekend) was based upon this one sentence and nothing else.

As to Fang Zhouzi's claimed that he has the "right" to accept or reject, that is his wishful thinking.


Another proof for the above assertion is a detail about how after I sent the interview portion to this mailbox for corrections, then he came up with the demand to also "read the section in the article about myself."  It was not "before he agreed to be interviewed by Nanfang Weekend" as he claimed.

About a week or so after the interview, the interview portion reached his mailbox and then he used his mobile phone to request that he wanted to read the article as well.  Please pay attention: he wanted to read the entire essay, not just "the sections that involved him in the article."

I refused via SMS for two reasons: first, this was not part of the original agreement; second, it was the reporter's right to write whatever he wants to in his own section and there is no need for advice from Fang.

Then he proposed: "Let me verify the section concerning me."

Even if it is just one portion, I still do not need to let him verify it.  As a reporter, I should be responsible for my own report.  More importantly, during the process of deciding what the facts are, I must pay attention to the balance among multiple sources of information, which must count more than the opinion of the interviewee alone.

Nevertheless, I still replied: "Fine."

But I was just agreeing that he can make the request.  It was not a promise to fulfill the request.


The first accusation made by Fang Zhouzi against Nanfang Weekend was about the "broken promise" on account of this "agreement."  But he was inaccurate.

I don't know why he was inaccurate and I don't want to speculate.  His attack essay on Nanfang Weekend had the final say everywhere, as this is the style of Fang Zhouzi.  Let him be.  He makes extreme statements; he would rather use a hammer than a pin.  Everybody can do that, although some people know enough not to.

When a news worker lets the interviewee read the report, it is a voluntary act rather than professional duty.  It is a way to have small details corrected, and not an invitation for the interviewee to "accept" according to his orders.  Fang Zhouzi's claim of "journalistic ethics" is obviously absurd.  For example, when we write a critical report, if we have to show the report to the interviewee first and then respect the opinion of that other party, then nothing will ever get published.

This logic about the "supremacy of the interviewee" is not new and definitely not invented by Fang.  Let us not say more about this.


Editing a copy means reduction.  After deleting something, can the original ideas be preserved?  A good editor can do that.  Actually, the reporter also lives by deletion.  If he had managed to collect a massive volume of information, who is going to read the jumbled mess?  According to common logic, when Fang Zhouzi agreed to be interviewed, he could not be objecting to any deletions happening.

As for "having about half of it deleted," that is not the main point.  The main point is that Fang Zhouzi said that the interview was distorted -- "some of the conversation was edited left and right.  It no longer represents my original intent."  

I looked at it left and right, and I fail to see how it was inaccurate.  The female writer Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose."  She meant to say that a noun can only express itself and not be substituted by anything else.  From this point of view, "寂寞" (solitude) and "寂寥" (solitude) are two different things, and any expression through any other means would alter the original meaning.  This is an absolute standard in linguistics, but this does not apply to the news media.

Let me state this issue clearly: I did a good job with editing this article.  There are two reason: first, it fits the original intent; second, it fits the main theme.

As for why Fang Zhouzi thinks that his original intent was not expressed, he will have to prove it.  It is not something that is resolved with one nasty sentence.  The ball is under his foot, but he does not kick it.  It is not enough to declare that he has just scored a goal.



Nanfang Weekend made an observer's report this time.  Beyond this "tough battle," our interests were in the personality disorders and system-derived defects of Chinese intellectuals.  This is not about some personal vendettas.  In other words, this is a public piece of news, and not at all about what happened between these two individuals.  The requirements of modern journalism are that the media must not only file a truthful, correct and complete account of a matter, but they must also endow it with a meaning.  It is not just about reporting the facts, for we must also understand the facts.