BEIJING (AFP) - Top Chinese Communist Party officials plagiarised parts of their university theses, an AFP review has found, testing the government's pledge to crack down on academic misconduct.
A former vice-president, a supreme court judge, a former top public security official, and the powerful party chief in the restive region of Xinjiang are among a half-dozen officials who borrowed from other people's work without citing them, the analysis showed.
Last year, the State Council, China's Cabinet, released the first ever national guidelines to enforce academic integrity in research following a series of plagiarism scandals, warning that those caught would be "severely punished".
Last month, the Beijing Film Academy revoked a doctorate awarded to popular actor Zhai Tianlin after finding that sections of a paper published while he was a graduate student were copied from earlier works without references.
The incident led to a heated debate on Chinese social media about "fake qualifications" among China's powerful and well-connected.
An AFP review of 12 master's and doctoral theses by Chinese officials available on China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) - a database under the ministries of education and science - found six cases in which passages were copied from other authors without citations.
Education qualifications are closely linked to promotions within the party, experts say, putting pressure on officials to cut corners when trying to amass diplomas while working.
"University leaders are well aware of this, because they are also government officials. They are all born with the same roots," said Mr Li Datong, former editor of China Youth Daily.
"The certificate is real, it's not bought on the street, but it is fake in essence. This is a popular practice in the officialdom," Mr Li said.
AFP analysed a dozen theses by using software that detects plagiarism. None of the six officials who plagiarised could be reached for comment or replied to questions sent by AFP.
This includes the doctoral dissertation by Mr Chen Quanguo, a member of the party's elite Politburo and the top official in Xinjiang.
Mr Chen has overseen a massive security crackdown since taking the top post in Xinjiang in August 2016, with an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities held in internment camps. Beijing denies holding people by force in what it describes as "vocational education centres".
A rising political star, Mr Chen graduated from Wuhan University of Technology in 2004.
His thesis, titled "Research on the Correlation between Human Capital Accumulation and Economic Development in Central China", includes over 60 paragraphs copied without citation from another work.
The other paper, titled "Human Capital and its Contribution to Economic Growth: An Empirical Study of Guangdong Province", was submitted to Jinan university in 2002 by doctoral candidate Zhu Yimin.
Mr Zhu is now an associate professor at the School of Management in China's prestigious Sun Yat-sen University.
Large chunks of the introduction to Mr Chen's thesis is copied almost word-for-word without references from another 2002 thesis titled "Economic analysis of Human Capital" submitted by Mo Zhihong to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Mr Mo, an associate professor at Beijing University of Technology, declined to comment when AFP asked whether Mr Chen had asked for permission to use his work.
The Wuhan University of Technology did not respond to requests for comment.
The Communist Party's Organisation Department - responsible for personnel promotions and punishing rule-breakers - declined a request for comment about the six plagiarism cases.
All six officials were working part-time towards their postgraduate degrees while holding public office.
Outing top officials could be a tough proposition for universities, which are controlled by the Communist Party.
"In many cases, party officials obtain degrees from institutions that have ties to and would benefit from their government positions," said a Chinese academic from elite Renmin University, who asked to remain anonymous.
China's vice-president from 2013 to 2018, Mr Li Yuanchao, wrote a doctoral dissertation titled "Some Issues Concerning the Production of Socialist Culture and Art" in 1998.
His paper includes 20 paragraphs that are identical to a 1991 thesis titled "On the Spiritual and Cultural Needs of the Masses of the Socialist Society" by Mr Zhang Mingeng.
Mr Li obtained his doctoral degree from the central party school.
A 2004 doctoral thesis by the vice-president of the Supreme People's Court, Mr Zhang Shuyuan, has dozens of paragraphs contained in a dissertation published by Tan Wei a year earlier and titled "Criminal Retrial Theory and System".
Former deputy auditor general Chen Zhaoyu, former Public Security Bureau chief Shi Jun and former party secretary of the State Intellectual Property Office Xiao Xingwei also borrowed heavily from other authors without attribution for their academic papers.
The State Council guidelines issued last year adopt a "zero tolerance" attitude towards plagiarism.
The punishments include having one's degree revoked, being subjected to a promotion freeze or being fired, depending on the severity of the violation. If rule-breakers are party members, then they shall be "given disciplinary sanctions", it says, without offering details.
Nanjing University expelled a sociology professor last year for plagiarising 15 research papers, state media reported.
But no top party officials have been publicly punished.