The Net has been atwitter (Twitter, too) with discussion of the Tang Jun diploma scandal. I’ll get to the salient facts in a moment, but ultimately I want to pose the question: do we care more about success or honesty?
Let’s take a look at the sad case of Tang Jun, a guy who was a short while ago merely famous in China and is now infamous. The controversy started earlier this month when Fang Zhouzi, a self-styled crusader against scientific misconduct and fraud, accused Tang of lying about his academic qualifications. The controversy spread quickly online due to Tang’s reputation. In one of his accusatory blog posts, Fang introduces Tang as a business role model:
The famous individual in question is Tang Jun (唐骏), a purported self-motivator who had achieved huge success in business world through his own unrelenting efforts. Tang Jun boasts an enviable resume, including the chief executive in China for Microsoft and several successful startups. Several books about his story, including a couple of his autobiography, are best sellers and he is a well-sort motivational speaker in universities and colleges. Indeed, Tang Jun is an idol for China’s youth. One of his autobiographies is titled as My Success Can Be Replicated.
Among other things, Tang stands accused of claiming a non-existent PhD from both the California Institute of Technology and another from Nagoya University in Japan.1 Responding to Fang’s charges, Tang admitted that his degree was actually received from the Pacific Western University in Los Angeles.
It’s very easy to get bogged down in the facts here, and there has been a great deal of discussion about what Tang actually claimed himself as opposed to statements made by third parties about his qualifications. Some folks have bent over backwards being charitable to Tang, since some of the details are sketchy at best. Even after writing a post that includes what I consider rather damning evidence, Joel Martinsen wrote in Danwei: “So strictly speaking, Tang Jun may not have lied about a Cal Tech doctorate.”
I’m not going to be that considerate or charitable. The guy lied repeatedly about the phantom PhD, both through omission and commission. He also lied about other things, as Fang has brought to light:
Tang said he earned money by selling his patent and was noticed by Microsoft in the 1990s. Fang searched the database of the US Patent and Trademark Office since 1976 and found no patents awarded to anyone named Jun Tang before 1999.
For the purposes of this post, let’s just agree that the guy is dishonest so we can move on to the Big Picture. Among the different questions (and answers) swirling around this incident is whether or not Tang Jun should lose his current job as President and CEO of New Huadu Industrial Group. The pertinent question was posed on the Wenxue City blog (as translated by EastSouthWestNorth):
If the Jun Tang occurred in the western world, his resignation would be inevitable because nobody will accept a prevaricating leader for a company. In China, some people don’t think this is a big deal. They even think that the matter is being overblown by Fang Zhouzi. Some people say: Who cares whether Jun Tang has a valid diploma as long as he is being a good manager?
I agree that if this happened in the West, Tang would be out on his ass, but that has nothing to do with whether Western folks will accept a prevaricating leader for a company, just ask Tony Hayward. But given that outcomes would differ geographically, does that mean that Western countries and China have different standards of honesty and morality? How do we answer the question: If he’s doing a good job, then what does it matter?
Even before we get to morality, let’s admit that this guy’s career has been built on the Microsoft job he began in 1994. I don’t think there is any question that either his phantom PhD from Ca lTech or Nagoya, or alternatively his bullshit PhD from the Pacific Western University diploma mill, was an important line item on his resume.
Whether or not he did good work at Microsoft (and since he was there for ten years and was promoted several times, one has to assume that he did) doesn’t matter; there’s a good chance he never would have been hired at all if it wasn’t for his sexed-up CV. But I suppose that’s old news; the fact is that he did get the job, and he did succeed at it. So maybe the rest doesn’t matter.
So what about honesty and morality? I would guess that in most countries, including China, surveys would show that most people claim to care about these traits in their government representatives, business leaders, educators, etc. But do people really care about those things?
I think not. If society actually cared about dishonesty, we would teach our kids not to do it and we would ostracize people that were caught in lies. Quick thought experiment: how many members of the U.S. Congress have made significant false statements in the past week alone? I’m not talking about mere political puffery, I mean bald-faced lies, statements that are factually incorrect. I would be shocked if the number was below 50%.
Not to pick on easy American targets, but can you remember who was responsible for these whoppers? 2
- A break-in at the Watergate Hotel? I don’t know what you’re talking about.
- I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
- I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
- Read my lips: no new taxes.
- Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
- I have a wide stance/I’m not gay.
- I didn’t kill my wife and Ron Goldman.
Look, there’s no accountability for this kind of thing, which is why everyone still does it. So really, we don’t much care about honesty, we just like to pretend that we do. At the end of the day, Nixon was a pretty good president, if you ignore Watergate and some of his more questionable adventures in Southeast Asia. In 1996 and 2004, America re-elected other presidents who were proven liars.
I often write that people will get away with whatever they can. If they can cheat on their taxes, they’ll do it. If they can download an MP3 or video file without paying for it, they’ll do it. If they can lie on their CV, they’ll do it. In a place like the U.S., if you lie on your resume, there’s a good chance that you will get caught, and therefore fewer people do it. In China, no one will check out your overseas degree credential, so a guy like Tang Jun felt free to lie about it. That’s the big difference.
This is not morality or honesty at play here, it’s cold calculation, and when it comes right down to it, all of us value success more than honesty. If we didn’t, we would be rioting in the streets.
[FYI, I will be touching on other fun Tang Jun issues (e.g. what’s the value of an overseas degree?) over on China Hearsay during the next day or two.]