Tang Jun seemed to embody the ideal of a successful, globally minded Chinese businessman. After leaving his post as president of Microsoft's China operation, he went on to help build a Chinese online gaming empire and in 2008 landed a huge salary as the head of a Chinese investment conglomerate. But it appears that the business titan's academic achievements were significantly embellished a fact that doesn't seem to concern many of his Chinese fans but has nonetheless catalyzed a nationwide discussion on the place of integrity in Chinese society.
Earlier this month, Fang Shimin, a biologist-turned science writer who has become famous in his own right for exposing academic frauds, revealed on his micro-blog that Tang never earned a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology as he claimed in an early version of his autobiography and various other occasions. Fang said that he had checked the Caltech alumni list and an online doctoral dissertation database, but had failed to locate Tang's name on either one of them.
Tang denied ever having made the claim, dismissing it as a communication glitch between him and his book's publisher. Five days after Fang's initial accusation, Tang told the China Daily that he received his Ph.D. at the California-based Pacific Western University, a school that Fang later pointed out was categorized as a diploma mill by a 2004 United States General Accounting Office report, and was not acknowledged by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Tang has yet to respond to that allegation, but has since been quoted by a Chinese magazine saying, "If your sincerity fools everyone, then it's a skill and a sign of success."
Diploma frauds are hardly unheard of in Chinese business culture. In 2001, Richard Li, a Hong Kong-based Internet tycoon, was exposed as having never graduated from Stanford University even though he had claimed to own a degree from that prestigious campus. Later that year, Wu Zheng, a co-chairman of the biggest Chinese-language web portal, went through a similar embarrassment when he was found to have received his Ph.D. from an unaccredited school in the U.S.
Tang's scandal has triggered an avalanche of mixed reactions and debates this month in the Chinese blogosphere that boil down to how honesty is valued in society. Indignant netizens have called for Tang to apologize and resign as chief executive of the New Huadu Industrial Group, a Chinese investment corporation that owns companies listed on both mainland China and Hong Kong stock markets. But Tang's many supporters argue for tolerance, holding "a diploma-oriented society" more responsible for this phenomenon than fraudulent individuals. "Tang Jun is a talented person after all," wrote an Internet user. "Why should we dwell so much on his diploma?"
That attitude has critics up in arms. "The fact that so many people are apathetic [to the scandal] or sympathizing with Tang reflects the moral corruption of our society as a whole," says Ge Jianxiong, professor of history at Fudan University in Shanghai. "Trust is practically nonexistent [in this society]."
Still, for now, the two camps are about an even split. According to a recent online survey conducted by a Beijing-based market research company, 45.5% of the 3,500 participants believed that Tang's alleged misconduct, if true, should be "treated with tolerance." The same percentage of people viewed "ability" as the most important aspect of a person, while nearly as many respondents picked "honesty."
In an e-mail response to TIME, Fang says he expected Tang would just ignore the accusation, because that was the reaction he had got when exposing other big shots. "In today's China, honesty is not only unacknowledged but often regarded as stupidity," he says. "I know many Chinese think Americans are naïve and easily fooled."
It is hard to gauge how much Tang has benefited, if at all, from the academic credentials he claimed to possess. Born in 1962, Tang was hired by Microsoft in 1994 as a senior manager and was promoted to president of Microsoft China in 2002. Two years later, he joined Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, a Shanghai-based online gaming company that became listed on NASDAQ in May 2004. Tang's latest move to New Huadu gained national attention as he reportedly brokered an annual salary package worth $146 million in company stock shares. Over the years, Tang has emerged as a household name in China as he frequented TV talk shows and university podiums, sharing rags-to-riches stories with audiences often gripped with admiration. His autobiography, titled My Success Can Be Replicated, has been reprinted five times since its release in 2008.
It has been weeks since the accusations against Tang first caught the public's eye, and yet the dust is far from settling. An independent director with New Huadu said that he would investigate the matter as soon as possible, but no official decision has been reached by the company so far. No matter what the result, Fudan University's Ge believes that the widespread problem of academic fraud will take much more than individual whistleblowers like Fang to solve. "I don't see how trust can be restored without an entirely different social belief system," he says. "I'm not optimistic about it at all."