Who Tried to Kill Fang Xuanchang?

A chilling attack on a controversial science journalist in Beijing bodes poorly for scientific progress.

On the evening of June 24, Fang Xuanchang, a 37-year-old science and technology editor at China's Caijing magazine, finished work around 10 p.m. and began his walk home. Half an hour later he was nearing his apartment by Beijing's third ring road when he felt a sudden blow to his back. Fang turned to see two large men behind him brandishing steel bars.

Fang tried to run away and then shield himself as the men, ignoring his attempts to communicate with them, struck him repeatedly across his back and head. Brawny and adept in martial arts, Fang not only remained conscious, but also managed to fight back. Finally, as Fang stumbled toward a taxi, his clothes soaked in blood, the attackers left the scene.

Later that night at Beijing's Navy General Hospital, doctors sutured a 2-inch gash on the back of his head. His assailants behaved like professionals, carrying out the brutal ambush in about four minutes and showing little concern about passersby witnessing the attack. "Their goal was clear," Fang told me in a June 30 email. "It was to kill me on the spot, or stop me from reaching the hospital in time so that I would bleed to death."

Why would someone try to kill Fang Xuanchang? No one knows, or even seems to care. The attackers remain at large, despite an ongoing police investigation and Caijing's best efforts to cooperate with the police and involve the All-China Journalists Association. The attack was covered in brief in Beijing-based newspapers, including a brief editorial in a state-run newspaper arguing that journalists shouldn't be attacked. But no one in the Chinese media has gotten into the question of who would attack Fang -- and more importantly, why exactly Fang might have been attacked.

For Fang's colleagues, however, the message is clear: Reporting on controversial topics, as Fang has done, is unsafe. Journalists who are abused don't necessarily find out who has attacked them or why, but the message sent to their friends and colleagues is clear: Don't go there, or you could be next. It has a chilling effect on a wide circle of people. In the case of science journalism, the financial and political stakes are increasingly high, and the personal risks might be increasingly high as well.

Fang is one of the leading figures among China's scientific muckrakers -- a scourge of academic and government-sponsored pseudoscience and a critic of public and private quackery. For more than 10 years as a journalist, editor, and blogger on the influential (although frequently blocked) Chinese watchdog website New Threads, Fang has taken on academics listing faked awards and publishing plagiarized papers; hawkers of herbal cancer "cures," such as Wang Zhenguo, peddler of the Tian Xian herbal cancer treatment; and Chinese scientists who claim to predict earthquakes, among other targets. But paranoia and anger, even violence, mark some recent responses to Fang's work.

Several weeks ago Fang, previously science editor at China Newsweek (unrelated to the U.S. magazine Newsweek), appeared alongside a fellow  rationalist, the biochemist-turned-columnist Fang Shimin (no relation, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi), on a Shenzhen TV debate about earthquake forecasting -- a largely discredited practice that remains an article of faith for many Chinese scientists and officials. One speaker, an official from China's national earthquake administration, a significant bureau under the State Council, spoke positively about parrots that can predict temblors and the paranormal abilities of a man who claimed he heard ringing in his ears before the quake in Yushu, in northwest China, in April. One guest on the show, Ren Zhenqiu of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, accused the science activists of accepting U.S. money to stifle Chinese innovation. Fang Shimin claimed on his blog that after the recording, Ren Zhenqiu called him a "big Chinese traitor" and threw a punch at him.

And this is not the full extent of the threats against Fang Shimin. On July 2, Fang said on his Sina microblog that he had received a threatening phone call. "Be careful in the next few days," the voice said. "Someone is going to fix you."

Scientific ideas have a complex life in China. Today an important government slogan is the "scientific view of development," yet academic fraud is widespread. In January, the scientific journal Acta Crystallographica Section E, a peer-reviewed international journal based in Britain, announced the wholesale retraction of more than 70 papers by Chinese scientists who had falsified data. Three months later, the same publication announced the removal of another 39 articles "as a result of problems with the data sets or incorrect atom assignments." According to New Threads, 37 of these were entirely produced at Chinese universities. One Chinese-government study cited by Nature found that about one-third of more than 6,000 scientists surveyed at six top Chinese institutions said they had practiced "plagiarism, falsification or fabrication."

Critics have blamed the pressure to produce fraudulent papers on unrealistic publication targets set by bureaucrats. But for Fang Xuanchang, the problem goes deeper still, as he told me when we met in May. It represents a slide backward from the scientific spirit of the anti-imperialist May 4th Movement -- the early 20th-century uprising that championed democracy, critical thought, and innovation. Speaking after the attack, Fang described himself and his colleagues as "quixotic." "Not many people understand the work we are doing," he said. "Most Chinese people's attitudes to science are superstitious and fearful." Things might be even worse at the elite level, he said, where science is encouraged in the abstract, without a grasp of the scientific method. Regarding scientific and critical thinking, Fang added, "Chinese people need a new enlightenment."

Such issues are not only of parochial concern: Renewing China's oft-cited historical reputation for scientific innovation is a matter of urgency for the world. Last month a report from Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts suggested that as China enters a new phase of economic and geopolitical might, the country's potential to roll out new, low-carbon technologies becomes an increasingly important factor in global efforts to address climate change.

Harnessing scientific prowess requires promoting good academic practice, scientific education, critical thinking -- and science journalism.

China Photos/Getty Images


The War Over Germany's Imams

Sent by Turkey as a check on Western influence as well as Islamist radicalism, Germany's holy men are at the heart of the battle over the future of Islam in Europe.

For decades, no one in Germany took much notice of the imported Islamic holy men in their midst. Turkey's Presidency of Religious Affairs sent imams inconspicuously, on four-year postings, to minister to the spiritual needs of West Germany's Turkish migrant workers and their families -- while keeping them in line with Turkish cultural norms.

But today, Germany's Turkish imams find themselves square in the public spotlight. Berlin and Ankara are wrapped up in a fierce battle -- and it's not just about religion. Both countries are vying for the allegiance of the 3-million-strong Turkish diaspora in Germany, a population that represents two-thirds of the country's Muslims. And both sides see the imams as the lynchpin to Germany's Turkish community. The imams are uniquely trusted authority figures among the Deutschtürken (German Turks) who first came to Germany as Gastarbeiter -- cheap, imported labor -- in the 1960s.

There are three directions the imams could take with Germany's diaspora Turks, each with huge consequences for the future of Islam in Germany and Europe: Do the preachers encourage diaspora Turks to integrate into secular Germany, do they push them in a radical extremist direction, or do they keep the majority of Germany's large Muslim population an essentially foreign community for as long as they can?

In a book recently published in Germany, religious scholar Rauf Ceylan, himself the son of Kurdish labor migrants from Anatolia, offers the most explicit, penetrating examination to date of Germany's foreign-born imams, showing exactly how crucial they are to Europe's fate. "Ultimately," he writes, "they determine whether young Muslims will endorse a liberal, conservative, or extremist Islam." His book, however, Die Prediger des Islam: Imame -- Wer Sie Sind und Was Sie Wirklich Wollen (The Preachers of Islam: Imams -- Who They Are and What They Really Want) is not optimistic.

It's not that the imams are breeding potential terrorists -- in fact, quite the opposite. When it comes to fundamentalism, German and Turkish interests overlap. The last thing Ankara wants is the German Turks reimporting radical strains of Islam back into the Ataturk republic. Of Germany's Islamic holy men generally, fewer than 1 percent are extremists, according to Ceylan, and those young, media-savvy leaders operate outside the purview of established mosques and often beyond the reach of both German and Turkish authorities. Germany has only narrowly escaped terrorist attacks like those in Madrid and London, and Ceylan warns that this "new quality" of fundamentalism has powerful, destructive potential.

But most of Germany's imams are "traditional-conservative," or, as Ceylan labels them, "the Prussians among imams." These preachers are overwhelmingly Turkish civil servants -- employees of the Turkish state -- on postings, most placed in parishes through Germany's largest Islamic organization, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), known in Germany as "Ankara's long arm."

Ever since Turkey woke up to the fact that millions of its citizens were living in Germany and weren't coming home anytime soon, imams have been flown in for purposes as political as they are religious. DITIB was created by Turkish authorities in the early 1980s to check the wayward drift and cultural emancipation of West Germany's Turkish diaspora as well as the evolution of religious practices away from Turkish traditions. The imams are Prussian (perhaps "Ottoman" might be more apt) in that they harbor deeply conservative mores, an authoritarian disposition, and unswerving allegiance to the fatherland -- all of which they pass on to their believers in sermons, parish work, and religion classes.

The Turkish imams' wages are paid by the government in Ankara, which regularly vilifies integration as a betrayal of Turkdom. Turks abroad should stay Turkish, whatever their citizenship, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed. On visits to Germany, Erdogan has even called assimilation a "crime against humanity" and urged the creation of all-Turkish high schools in Germany. Ankara, which recently created a cabinet-level Office for Turks Abroad, even urges diaspora Turks to act in Turkish interests, as a kind of pro bono foreign service.

Although DITIB denies it, its imams are Turkey's primary mechanism for keeping German Turks, now in their fourth generation, from becoming, simply, Germans. A look around the premises of just about any of DITIB's 900 German facilities attests to their ultimate allegiance, after Allah: On sale are red-and-white Turkish flags, Turkish postcards, and made-in-Turkey sweets, games, and T-shirts. DITIB officials work hand in hand with the Turkish Embassy in Berlin and its regional consulates. The religion ministry in Ankara writes the Friday sermons both for Turkey and the diaspora, including DITIB-run mosques in Germany.

Some imams Ceylan interviewed admitted to the absurdity of reading sermons about village life in Anatolia to believers in downtown Hamburg. "Most of the [Ankara-composed sermons'] themes have nothing to do with the everyday life of the people," Ceylan writes. "Instead of addressing acute social problems like education or forced marriages, the imams in Berlin and Duisburg ramble on about the Battle of the Dardanelles Strait, Ataturk's life, and the Zakat, the Turkish social security system."

Along with German officials, Ceylan bemoans the imams' inability to help their believers cope with the complex day-to-day problems facing migrant communities in Germany. With limited German and scant knowledge of German society, the imported imams are helpless, say, to aid families navigating the German legal bureaucracy or using the convoluted health-care system. Their archconservatism undermines their usefulness in areas like health and relationships, where the problems of third- and fourth-generation young adults resemble those of their big-city German peers. Study after study shows the Turkish community poorly integrated, failing in German schools, and unable -- Ceylan himself obviously an exception, not to mention Mesut Ozil, the ethnically Turkish star of Germany's World Cup soccer team -- to advance past the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

The outspoken Berlin Green Party member Ozcan Mutlu blasts the Turkish leadership for "perpetuating national differences." "We want German and Turkish kids to learn together," not apart from one another, he says. The Turkish prime minister doesn't speak for the Deutschtürken, he underscores. Nevertheless, their provincialism -- reinforced by the state imams -- hinders them from integrating.

The issue of Germany's Turks has become a nasty sore spot in the often troubled relationship between Turkey and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel snapped back to Erdogan that "integration" isn't "assimilation." Germany doesn't want to turn Turks into Germans, she says, but the one-time migrants should join in German public life.

And Merkel is taking action to bring Turks into the fold. Proponents of ethnic integration widely agree that a new generation of religion teachers should be trained in Germany, where they could better blend Islam and the values of modernity. Although neither Ankara nor DITIB has publicly opposed this idea, the barbs hurled at Ceylan by Turkish patriots at readings of Die Prediger des Islam -- accusing him of bad-mouthing Islam and the patria -- betrays their antagonism.

Just this year, Germany committed itself to creating several Islamic theology departments at German universities that would nurture imams, other Islamic personnel (including female clergy), and religious scholars. The thought -- now in vogue across Western Europe -- is that, independent of the doctrinaire Turkish seminaries, a new stripe of self-critical, democracy-friendly Islam might emerge, one better suited to life in modern Europe. At the moment in Germany, one such pilot faculty exists in the northwestern city of Osnabrück along the Dutch border, where Ceylan currently teaches. But its early years have been marred by bitter disagreements within the Islamic community and between local Muslims and German academia, a foretaste of what it means to get such faculties up and running.

And then there's the tricky question of what mosques will house these moderate-minded, German-schooled preachers once they've graduated. Most of Germany's mosque communities don't seem to complain about the DITIB imams, who are free to local parishes, all expenses paid by Turkey. The mosques that have broken away from DITIB's grip tend not to choose Birkenstock-shod, multikulti imams, but rather fundamentalist-minded preachers, like those from Milli Gorus, an international Islamic movement with access to external funding.

Ultimately, a new synthesis of Islam and the Enlightenment will have to come from below, namely from Germany's diverse Muslim communities. Fortunately for the Germans, Erdogan's patriotic bluster tends to fall on deaf ears among German Turks. Thousands of former migrants with Turkish backgrounds may attend the rallies that Erdogan holds in Germany, but they realize their future lies outside Turkey -- and they may eventually invest in their adopted country through a more careful, independent choice of religious leaders. Until then, Berlin might just have to make its peace with Turkey's handpicked Prussians, given the alternative.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images