Critics of Chinese researchers targeted in physical attacks.
Science can be a rough game in China. On 29 August, on his way home from a tea house in Beijing, Fang Shimin was assaulted. The former biochemist — who for the past decade has run a website exposing scientific fraudsters — was chased by two men, caught and attacked with a hammer.
"I believe they planned to kill me," he says. "The only way to shut me up is to kill me." He escaped with only minor cuts and bruises. In June, Fang Xuanchang, a journalist who had reported on corruption in science in China, was left with more serious injuries after two men assaulted him with steel rods.
On 21 September, police arrested Xiao Chuanguo, a urologist at Tongji Medical College in Wuhan, on suspicion of masterminding both plots. Xiao could not be reached for comment, but has confessed his involvement to Beijing's police. Fang Shimin says Xiao could face 3–10 years in prison — or more if the charges become attempted murder.
Xiao and Fang Shimin have never met or spoken, but their paths have crossed on the Internet — and in court. Xiao's clash with him, and with Fang Xuanchang, revolves around a surgical procedure devised by Xiao that aims to restore bladder and bowel function in patients with spina bifida or spinal-cord injuries. Xiao reported an impressive 87% success rate for the operation, which involves re-routing nerves1,2. In 2005, he was nominated for membership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the elite body of the Chinese scientific world.
Following his nomination, people started posting questions about Xiao's claims on Fang Shimin's website (http://fangzhouzi-xys.blogspot.com). Then in September 2005, Fang Shimin published an essay in Beijing Sci–Tech Report, which said that Xiao was not an associate professor at New York University as he states in his CV, but only an assistant professor. Furthermore, the article said that only 4 of the 26 English-language publications Xiao listed were journal articles — the rest being abstracts from conference proceedings.
It is not known if Fang Shimin's article affected the academy's decision, but Xiao was not made a member and has since sued Fang Shimin for libel five times. Fang Shimin, whose site has been criticized for giving contributors a platform for unjustified attacks on their enemies3, lost one case and won two, with the other two undecided. Meanwhile, criticism of the 'Xiao procedure' has continued. Last year, Fang Xuanchang published a series of articles questioning its efficacy, which may have prompted the attacks on him.
Beijing-based lawyer Peng Jian says he has interviewed 20–30 patients who have experienced side effects after undergoing the Xiao procedure, and who are seeking compensation. This summer, the first US trial of the treatment reported ambiguous results in The Journal of Urology4, and two journal editorials said it should be considered experimental4.
Fang Shimin, meanwhile, is unfazed by the attack. "It won't stop me," he says. "I will continue to do what I am doing."
Xiao, C.-G. Proc. Int. Conf. Urol. Shanghai, 2–4 July (2005).
Xiao, C.-G. Eur. Urol. 49, 22-29 (2006).
Cyranoski, D. Nature 441, 392-393 (2006).
Peters, K. M. et al. J. Urol. 184, 702-708 (2010).
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Research Integrity in Greater China: Surveying Regulations, Perceptions and Knowledge of Research Integrity from a Hong Kong Perspective
Developing World Bioethics (2013)