Tang Jun’s Diploma Problems: Success vs. Honesty

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.

Tang Jun's diploma, for what it's worth

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.]


  1. Note to editors and bloggers out there: it’s “Cal Tech” not “CIT.” []
  2. Answers: find out for yourself. Do I have to do everything for you? []


18 Comments

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  1. I think one of the more interesting revelations posted by Chinese netizens was a longer list of high-level business and other leaders who had also ‘graduated’ from PWU. It’s an interesting case because, as you’ve noted, it pushes a lot of sensitive buttons. In a society with considerable social mobility (and accompanying amounts of status anxiety), one where educational qualifications, especially post-graduate degrees from foreign universities, are seen as an important marker of status, the idea that Tang Jun might be brought down by this scandal (and that others could follow) is a story worth watching. Thanks for the post.

  2. tanner boyle

    There’s no accountability for those statements? I think all but one of the statements (WMD) you listed had pretty direct consequences for the person who made them.

    Good for one person in China trying to hold people to an ethical standard. A streak starts with one!

    • Well, yeah, to some extent. Some think Bush I didn’t get re-elected because of the taxes pledge. I think it had more to do with the bad economy, but that’s splitting hairs. Nixon resigned, but was pardoned; I don’t call that accountability. Sanford is still in office. O.J. was found not guilty. Larry Craig resigned, but he was essentially able to stick by his “wide stance” story without anyone in the media doing more than make fun of him. Bush II and Clinton were re-elected.

  3. pug_ster

    I don’t think this is a Chinese thing as many people from different cultures are tempted to take shortcuts to success. Recently, there was some guy who went to harvard who faked his credentials in order to get there and was arrested. Although I think that it might be a good idea for many Chinese companies who check credentials of applicants who went to overseas universities.

  4. Stan, your blog entertains some big questions; but over all, telling lies is the slippery slope.

    Notwithstanding that good management practices often trump little and big lies at the get-go, as time passes, even the little lies tend to foster the necessity to tell more and more lies to support the original lie. Eventually, even the lie-tellers can no longer discern what is the real truth and all collapses despite their earlier successes.

    As an illustration, would not the Great Leap Forward serve as an example of small lies leading eventually to horrific consequences. (Yes, I know, the people on top were not necessarily held accountable, but then this is China.)

    • Dishonest people tend to get worse as time goes on. They get used to it, and not only do they have to compound/cover up their lies with other ones, but they just get into the habit. It’s kind of creepy.

      Yes, that is one of the reasons why this sort of thing actually does matter.

  5. lolz

    Outright resume puffing maybe rare in both the US and China but then most people do exaggerate their accomplishments and experience on their resumes. Those who use linkedin should check some of the stuff their connections have put up and you will see what I am talking about.

    Most job seekers are like sales reps trying to sell themselves as services, with the employers being the customers. If you look at any types of successful sales/marketing efforts you will find that they are all embellished to deliver well tuned, streamlined messages. As mentioned already the resume can only get you so far, to be ultimately hired you will need good communication skills.

    The difference between China and the US is that majority of the Chinese people still hold the belief that academic pedigree is a requirement for leadership and ultimate financial success. Thus with the Chinese you will probably find more people who lie about their academic achievements. That information is very easy to prove false.

    In the US people lie about the extent of their experience. That is very difficult to prove false. For example, if you are a member of a project, on your resume you can easily exaggerate your role on that project. It would be extremely difficult to prove false because for larger projects very few people know the exact contributions which each person gave. In fact, one way to successfully climb the corporate ladder is to do just that: get minimally involved with multiple high profile projects to bring up your profile.

  6. “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.”

    I think the problem runs deeper than that.

    Cheating in education starts early in China, and teachers, examiners, and subject coordinators are more inclined to turn a blind eye. I can recall many examples of blatant plagiarism or exam cheating that were necessarily graded ‘F’ by myself or colleagues, only to be upgraded to a pass by the institution in question (often following student complaints).

    This is just one aspect of the ‘ends justifies the means’ approach to self-advancment that permeates – but is not exclusive to – Chinese society.

    • pug_ster

      True, because schools in China where they set the bar high and parents have high expectations for their children so I would not be surprised that they would cheat. Kids in America are a totally different story. The bar is set so low, and you can hand in sloppy ass work and you can ‘pass’ with an C (at least it is creative, right?) In the end, this is what kind of kids the 2 countries produce, the dog eat dog world in China where kids are competitive or a bunch of fat lazy kids in the US.

      • King Tubby

        This low bar pc child assessment is a global thing and it is disgusting. Don’t diss the school children: bad for their self-esteen. Way to create a generation of pc savvy morons.

        I must be showing my age.

        Stuart. Been there. Done that.

        • pug_ster

          No I am not dissing the school children. I’m blaming on the system where the kids have little incentive to achieve. Let the smart kids skip a grade and the dumb kids drop a grade. In US current school system, the school children tries to be ‘fair’ and rubberstamps every kid to the next grade, whether he/she is deserves to go or not.

      • Jones

        Oh, I see, so the problem is because the bar is set too high. haha, got it.

  7. Tim

    Not all lies are born equal and some are just not lies. When Bush stated he wasn’t going to raise taxes then turned around and did so, he was most likely breaking a promise rather than outright lying. For it to be a lie, he would have known that he intended to raise taxes when he made that announcement. Same goes with Bush Jr.; if he honestly believed that Iraq had these weapons then it is not so much a lie but rather poorly developed critical thinking skills. OJ may have lied about offing his wife and her lover but is the lie really what people are focusing on or rather the murders themselves?

    Lying for advancement may not get much attention due to the morality but it does due to the fact that it is not fair (not always the same thing as morality). Most people are predisposed to dislike unfairness, even to the point of making irrational decisions. And this scandal reeks of it.

  8. G. Liang

    Most people anywhere can tolerate a little white lie and a bit of exaggeration. But what Tang Jun did was far more insidious: complete fabrication of starting three successful companies in California; had four patents/inventions; won a professorship at the University of Texas. These false claims are all in his autobiography, both in print and online. On one of his many TV interviews in China, he did state that he got his PhD from Caltech. These are all in addition to his claims of non-existent academic credentials.

    Tang Jun’s lying and blatant deceptions as a very visible public figure can not be tolerated. Yes lots of people lie and lots of lies are never discovered. But once a serious lie is uncovered, the society as a whole must make a stand on moral, ethical, and legal grounds. If not, no society could survive as a viable civilization.

    If your Chinese proficiency is up to par with what the Chinese netizens are thinking on this subject, you will find majority of the young netizens is against dishonesty and demands integrity in government and businesses. Interestingly, Tang Jun’s generation is more ambivalent and tolerant on his indiscretions.

    What is hopeful here is that, perhaps, the younger generation will learn from this Tang Jun episode that honesty and integrity form the foundation for good government, just society, vibrant communities, and prosperous businesses producing safe products and offering good services.

    • tc

      If we Chinese are to hope someday no longer being ridiculed by the rest of the world, honesty and integrity are where we “must” get back to. Somehow we lost all these …禮義廉恥, which Japanese learned (from our ancestors) and have kept practicing so well.

  9. jj westwix

    You overstate when you say if he were in western company he would be gone.

    “Jack J. Pelton is the CEO of Cessna Aircraft Company. Before becoming the CEO of Cessna, Pelton was Cessna’s Senior Vice President of Engineering. Before joining Textron in 2000, Pelton was Senior Vice President of Engineering and Programs at Fairchild Dornier. Prior to this, he worked at Douglas Aircraft for over two decades.[1].

    In 2004 it was disclosed that Pelton purchased his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from a diploma mill called Hamilton University.[2] References to these degrees has since been removed from his official biography.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_J._Pelton

    He has been promoted to Chairman (in addition to his CEO job) since his lie uncovered and is still there.

  10. G. Liang

    Huge difference. Jack Pelton did not purchased his degrees from Hamilton and claimed they are from Caltech.

    I like to remind the readers that Tang Jun has his hired PR firms putting a positive on his shady past.

Continuing the Discussion