When China’s leading infectious disease expert gently pushed back against his country’s draconian anti-Covid measures, he was hit by what appeared to be a textbook smear operation.

An ardently pro-government Weibo user claimed Dr. Zhang Wenhong, often described by Western media outlets as the country’s answer to Dr. Fauci, had plagiarized his PhD.

The claims prompted Shanghai’s Fudan University, where Zhang got his doctorate in molecular biology in 2000, to announce an investigation into his case, and news outlets outside China picked up the story as a cautionary tale of the consequences of deviating from the party line. 

But when a group of Chinese scientists living in China and abroad claimed there was merit in the allegations against Zhang, the shadowy levers of the Chinese state seem to have launched a hasty clean-up operation to restore Zhang’s international reputation as top scientist. 

On August 23, eight days after announcing an investigation into Zhang, Fudan University said he had been cleared of any misconduct. The statement clearing Zhang’s name was widely disseminated on Chinese state media, the initial Weibo post that had first alerted people to anomalies in Zhang’s work deleted and the user’s account suspended. Zhang’s dissertation was deleted from CNKI and Wanfangdata, two popular databases for academic papers.

A Shanghai publishing house soon brought out a new biography of Zhang to laudatory coverage in the Chinese state media. In a book review, Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News described the scientist as an “unforgettable figure” of the pandemic. The biography was stacked up in bookshop displays in China, next to Xi Jinping’s writings. Dr. Zhang was a national hero again.

The Chinese state has become grimly intolerant of criticism under President Xi Jinping. Those questioning his policies often find themselves targeted on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat by faceless bots and anonymous handles, making it hard to tell if the outrage is actively orchestrated by the Chinese state or zealous netizens acting on their own initiative. 

Zhang’s vertiginous ride — from beloved doctor of the people, to villainous plagiarist, to state-certified national hero — suggests that when such disinformation campaigns cut too close to the truth, they can backfire to the embarrassment of the Chinese government and crack its carefully cultivated facade of polished omniscience. 

 “Zhang’s misconduct was far more serious than the original accusation,” said Fang Shi-min, a San Diego science writer with a biochemistry PhD, who won the 2012 John Maddox Prize for exposing pseudoscience in China.

Zhang, who is a member of the Communist Party of China, heads the center of infectious diseases at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital. He has 3.9 million followers on Weibo and, since the outbreak of the pandemic, has become something of a celebrity.

On July 29, Zhang posted a Weibo message that appeared to chide the Chinese authorities for their response to a Delta variant outbreak in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing. Mass testing, stay-at-home orders and tight surveillance had been rolled out in line with the country’s so-called “zero-Covid” approach, an absolutist strategy used by China, Australia and New Zealand to stamp out every last case and eliminate virus circulation entirely. 

“The path China chooses in the future must be to ensure a society that has a shared future with the world, that communicates with the world, and returns to a normal life, while protecting its citizens from fear of the virus. China should have such wisdom,” Zhang said, posting in Mandarin.

In the ensuing weeks a post about Zhang surfaced, written by Weibo user Dasheng Talks, a well-known blogger called Zhao Shengye, known for his extreme nationalist views. Zhao has, in the past, appeared to call on the CCP to destroy the world. 

 “Zhang Wenhong is definitely not an academic authority in the eyes of some people,” Zhao wrote before discussing how Zhang’s plagiarism thesis appeared to be copied from two other papers written two years before. “This is naked plagiarism! Plagiarism! Plagiarism!” 

The zealous post caught the attention of a select circle of scientists living in China and abroad, including Fang, the science writer from San Diego, who has earned a nickname as “the Science Cop,” for his blogs on the underworld of Chinese science over the past two decades. Hundreds of comments about the plagiarism claims began accumulating on Chinese forum Zhihu, as scientists and commentators began discussing the allegations.

After examining the thesis, Fang said more than 7000 words of Zhang’s doctoral thesis literature review appear to be copied from two other articles written in 1998 by Chinese scientists Huang Hainan and Wang Xiaochuan. Fang added that in the research section some of Zhang’s experimental results appeared to be the same as some of those found in a 1996 American paper published in Molecular Microbiology journal, led by a researcher, David Rouse, who now works as a senior scientist at the Food and Drug Administration in the US. Though Zhang’s paper cites Rouse’s, Fang explained, it refers to an unrelated sentence in the paper — not the experimental results.

Coda reached out to Rouse, who referred us to an FDA spokesperson, who declined to comment on the matter. 

“Although plagiarism is very common in China, this kind of outright plagiarism is rare. The plagiarists usually do some modifications to cover up plagiarism. Zhang didn’t bother to do that,” Fang said.

China has been embroiled in academic integrity debates for decades. In 2020, Coda reported on the proliferation of so-called paper mills that churn out bogus scientific research for Chinese scientists for a fee. Chinese authorities have pledged to crack down hard on academic misconduct and plagiarism.

So when scientists and academics detailed the extent of Zhang’s alleged plagiarism and published them on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, the posts clearly hit a raw nerve. Coda has independently verified that Chinese journalist Sun Tao was issued a notice from WeChat informing him that his post detailing the alleged plagiarism was removed for “violating laws, regulation and policies”. Six WeChat posts about the case, by Xiao Ying, a philosophy professor at top-ranking Tsinghua University, that called the dissertation “unscrupulously” and “shamelessly” copied, were deleted or blocked with the same notice. Xiao said on Weibo – before that account, too, was suspended – that simply writing the characters “Zhang Wenhong” seemed to be enough to have his posts flagged. On 23 August, Peking University neurology professor Rao Yi criticized Fudan’s decision in a WeChat post. It was promptly deleted

“The government is very protective of Zhang,” said a biomedical research scientist from China who now lives in the U.S. and anonymously uncovers fake papers. They said the government would not tolerate their top scientist having his credentials stripped. “The government puts so much effort into shielding the entire Chinese internet, deleting all these posts to protect him.”

“The government has started a propaganda campaign to boost Zhang’s reputation,” said Fang. “It’s unsurprising that Fudan University, or any other Chinese University, protects powerful or famous alumni. This has happened many times before. I’ve exposed numerous high-profile plagiarism and scientific misconduct cases – none of them were taken seriously by authorities.” 

Before Fudan University cleared Zhang, the scientist himself posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

 “I am a bit lazy and rarely post on Weibo,” he wrote. “But recently many people have expressed concern for me, so I’ll update you on what I’ve been doing over the past few days.” 

He outlined the challenges China still faces in fighting the virus, and was careful to emphasise his support for the country’s Covid response scheme. “We must have a firm belief that the anti-epidemic strategy adopted by our country is the best way forward for us.” 

In recent days, Zhang has been inundated with comments from supporters. “In the current era of anti-intellectualism and populism in China, students who dare and have always dared to tell the truth deserve our respect,” wrote one user. “Whoever wants to mess with you, we the masses won’t stand for it!” wrote another.

Zhang and Fudan University did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Rao Yi’s WeChat account was suspended. His account remains active.