Postcard from Beijing... no 16

Beijing's plagiarism problem

For the most part, I love living and working as a writer in Beijing for, despite the city’s substantial history and heritage, change is the only constant and there is always something new to report on.

But eking out a living from the written word isn’t always plain sailing thanks to the widespread problem of plagiarism – the act of passing off someone else’s words as your own. China’s plagiarism problem is particularly pertinent right now; an article that appeared in Global Times last week revealed that a book written by Wu Han and published by Shaanxi Normal University Press in May, had plagiarized its translation of subtitles to a Yale University online open course.

I was disappointed and dismayed by the story – if not shocked having encountered plagiarism on numerous occasions throughout my sojourn in China’s capital. However while Wu Han might have committed the ultimate faux paux in plagiarising for financial gain (asking people to pay you for words you didn't write is not on),  in the majority of plagiarism cases that I have encountered since I touched down in China a year ago, money isn’t the motivating factor.

Rather, the widespread plagiarism is in part a desire to demonstrate knowledge: I’ve found articles and opinion pieces that I have written, reproduced – without any citation – on people’s (unprofitable) personal blogs while colleagues will happily cut and paste huge chunks of text from Wikipedia and present it as their own translation. Elsewhere, an assignment I set for a student (I teach English as a sideline) to write a review of his favourite book resulted in him diligently copying a critique off Amazon, word for word. Neither my colleagues nor student seem to understand that copying another person's work doesn't demonstrate that you have the knowledge; only that you were able to locate and copy it.

This plagiarism epidemic is of course partly due to laziness, but it’s also down to a lack of recognition that plagiarism is wrong. For the fact of the matter is that unlike elsewhere of the world, copyright theft isn’t frowned upon in the Middle Kingdom. Instead it not only openly abounds, but is positively celebrated. Don’t believe me? Just take a trip to the Silk Market which is chock full of pirated copies of Country Strong and knock off D&G and DKNY designs – all of which are yours for the price of a pizza.

They say imitation is the best form of flattery but plagiarism is dishonest. More than that, it’s outright theft. If someone was to use your car without permission, you’d be upset. Similarly if a co-worker used your ideas without permission in a meeting with your boss, you’d (rightly) be pretty mad. Likewise as a writer, when someone uses sentences that I have sweated over (where should the semi colon go?) without proper citation, I get mad.

The ironic thing is that there’s really no need for Beijingers to be plagiarising peoples’ work. I have met so many intelligent, interesting Beijingers with whom I have had a whole host of fun, engaging conversations – addressing issues that are happening in the world we live in today. I want to read their thoughts, their views – not Wikipedia’s –and worryingly the more you copy, the less you become your own person. The bottom line? Be yourself. Let’s band together and make 2011 the year that we become baffled by why plagiarism seems like a good idea, not by the reasons why we shouldn't do it.