Revelations of government corruption hardly raise eyebrows in China these days. But Zhang Shuguang’s exploits have managed to shock a jaded populace. The “father” of China’s high-speed rail system, standing trial on corruption charges in Beijing last week, testified that he solicited bribes from businessmen because he needed money—a whopping 23 million yuan (about $3.8 million)—to burnish his credentials and influence votes in the biannual elections for membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2007 and 2009. It turned out to be money ill spent, in more ways than one: Zhang failed to get elected not once, but twice.
Becoming a CAS academician, or yuanshi, is considered one of the highest honors for a scientist in China. But unlike academy memberships in many other countries, the yuanshi title bestows more than respect: It comes with a host of privileges as well. For example, academicians can keep their jobs as long they wish; everyone else in government service, from China’s president on down, face mandatory retirement. Academicians help set the nation’s science policy, influence funding decisions, and some of them control large sums of research money.
The railway ministry, which was broken up in March during an ongoing government crackdown on corruption, wanted its very own academician. According to an investigative report published in December 2011 in the Chinese business newsmagazine Century Weekly, then-minister Liu Zhijun picked Zhang, a deputy chief engineer, to be the ministry’s nominated candidate for CAS membership in the 2007 elections. (In July, Liu received a death sentence, with a 2-year reprieve, after he was convicted of graft and abuse of power by a Beijing court.)
According to Century Weekly, businessmen seeking ministry contracts learned of Zhang’s nomination and offered to help. That year, the magazine detailed, Zhang, using a slush fund provided by the businessmen, cloistered 30 experts from mostly ministry-affiliated universities and research institutes in a hotel for 2 months, during which time they churned out three books on high-speed rail technology that were credited to Zhang. That burst of authorship didn’t quite put Zhang over the top in the elections: His bid failed by seven votes.
Two years later, Zhang pursued CAS membership with a much larger war chest, according to his court testimony. He hired ghostwriters to produce more volumes on his behalf and invited voting-eligible CAS members on all-expenses-paid tours of the high-speed rail system, lavishing them with gifts, according to Century Weekly. Zhang nearly pulled it off that time: He fell one vote shy of election. A source tells ScienceInsider that Zhang’s membership might have succeeded if not for an impassioned speech by an influential academician who derided Zhang’s credentials just before the final round of voting. In court last week, official state media reported, Zhang pleaded guilty to taking bribes, almost half of which were for his CAS membership bids.
Zhang’s admission has touched off a firestorm in China, where many commentators are questioning CAS members’ integrity and calling for curbs on the perks of being a yuanshi. The government’s Xinhua News Agency on 11 September ran an article demanding to know whom Zhang bribed. CAS issued a statement on the same day saying that it had not received any complaints against its members for bribe-taking, but vowed to investigate if complaints are lodged.
Candidates like Zhang who have both money and power at their disposal are rare, says an expert on history of CAS membership who asked for anonymity because he’s involved in an effort to overhaul the yuanshi system. A more common problem, the source says, is lobbying by organizations on behalf of candidates. With Zhang’s case getting so much attention, CAS will be under immense pressure to hold squeaky clean elections this November.