China’s Crackpot Cops

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Just as there is in the United States, there is a huge appetite in China for all manner of quackery and crackpots. Zhang Wuben, a Beijing nutritional therapist and author of a book called Cure the Diseases You Get from Eating by Eating, achieved wealth and celebrity by claiming that consuming mung beans in staggering quantities is a cure for a host of maladies. Zhang was a bit too successful, it seems; the price of mung beans tripled, and there were allegations that the health guru was hoarding the beans and engaging in market speculation. This rumor led to scrutiny of Zhang’s qualifications, which, predictably, turned out to be entirely bogus. Eventually, the once popular talk show guest was completely discredited and his posh Beijing headquarters were torn down by the Chinese authorities.

Writing in New Humanist (Sept.-Oct. 2010), Sam Geall credits science advocates such as Fang Xuanchang and Fang Zhouzi with mounting aggressive public challenges and exposing pseudo­science frauds like Zhang. Fang Zhouzi alone, Geall writes, “claims to have exposed more than 900 cases of academic fraud in China.” In a country where much “traditional” science and health wisdom is fiercely entrenched, the job of rationalist “science cops” is not without peril. Fang Zhouzi, for instance, has been challenged to a duel, attacked with pepper spray, sued for libel, and punched (the latter after questioning the contention that parrots can predict earthquakes). In June of 2010 Fang Xuanchang was severely beaten by two assailants while he was walking from work. Yet despite the threats, both men remain undaunted. “Most Chinese people’s attitudes to science are superstitious and fearful,” Fang Xuanchang told Geall. “Chinese people need a new enlightenment.”

Image by lanchongzi, licensed under Creative Commons.

 This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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