Tsinghua professor detained two years for allegedly false accusation of improper involvement in business
Fu Lin in his office shared with his whole team Photo: infzm.com
The support from Tsinghua University has brought new optimism in the Fu Lin case. “This is not his problem alone. If (we) don’t handle it well, all our teachers and even the whole academic community would be seriously frustrated. Then, they (scientists) would merely work on papers, instead of seeking to transform their research achievements into commercial application,” the Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, cited Zhu Yingxin, associate dean of the School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, as saying.

On February 14 this year, right before China’s Spring Festival, Tsinghua Professor Fu was released on bail, 699 days after he was taken into custody. He went back to his home inside the Tsinghua campus, rested for one whole day and then dyed his grizzled hair black, before taking a train back to his hometown in East China’s Shandong province. “New year is coming, I don’t want to let my parents see I’m down and out. They would be affected,” he told the Southern Weekly in an exclusive interview.

It’s widely reported the teaching staff and students of the prestigious university had petitioned for the release. Fu is a professor and doctoral supervisor with Tsinghua University’s architecture school. On March 17, 2016, he was put under criminal detention by the Haidian District People’s Procuratorate. He was formally charged with two crimes—one was misusing research funds worth 2.2 million yuan, and the other was embezzling public funds worth 4.39 million yuan.

Fu’s detention had generated particularly strong backlash in China’s academic circles. The mainstream opinion could be well depicted by an old saying, “a man’s wealth is his own ruin by causing other’s greed.” It’s generally believed the Tsinghua professor was innocent, but his grasp of a key know-how had incurred jealousy and misfortune.

Fu is known for having developed a patented technology that could greatly help with energy saving and emission reduction. To put it simply, the technology would recover waste heat of power plants much more efficiently, and then use it to provide heating for homes in North China in the winter, in a bid to reduce consumption of coal and alleviate pollution.

Coal has long been a major fuel in China. While a large amount of thermal energy is getting wasted for nothing, 15 percent of coal in the country is used for winter’s heating system. For those plants that don’t combine heat and power generation, 60 percent of heating energy generated along with electricity would be cooled and then released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, coal-fired heating has become the main culprit for heavily polluted air that usually shrouds China’s northern areas in the winter.

In 2015, at the Climate Change Conference in Paris which finally led to the Paris Agreement, China’s advertising video used 30 seconds to showcase the technology developed by Fu’s team. In 2013, it was awarded the National Award for Technological Invention.

The scientific know-how was put into use in Datong, North China’s Shanxi province, which was notorious for air pollution. Now, the city boasts the best air quality among northern Chinese cities. It was reported by the state-run Science and Technology Daily that, in 2015 and 2016, the number of days with good air had exceeded 300, while the technology’s application had helped save 678,000 tons of standard coal.

Half a year after Fu was released on bail, on September 20, the prosecutor’s office announced to withdraw the lawsuit, and the decision was approved by the court in Beijing’s Haidian district. “I have mixed feelings (about the result). It’s a little bit late. But after the years, my innocence is finally proven,” Fu was quoted as saying by the Chinese media. Zhou Ze, the lawyer of Fu, told the Southern Weekly, they had no idea about specific reasons behind the withdrawal.

The allegations filed against Fu are generally believed to be related to his role as both a scientific researcher and business manager.

Between 2004 and 2015, while acting as a professor of Tsinghua University, Fu also worked as head of an energy institute under THUPDi, which is a wholly state-owned enterprise affiliated to the Tsinghua University. Despite the institute’s public ownership, it is actually completely self-financed. Fu and his co-workers would find projects to work on by themselves and thus get paid.

In order to gain more flexibility and employ talents required for the key technology transfer but who could not be hired by the energy institute, Fu set up his own private companies. The allegedly embezzled money was reportedly paid first to the private businesses and then returned to the public institute led by Fu.

In 2007, Fu accidently found that the Beijing municipal government was seeking to provide financing for valuable scientific research projects. He and his team applied and was given a total of 8.74 million yuan for their technological application work. The alleged embezzlement of 2.22 million yuan came from the funds they gained.

“Criminal laws concerning the use of scientific research funds are currently extremely sketchy,” Sun Yuan, a law professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said. He noted if the case could go to court, it would present a good chance for related legal dilemma to be solved.

Zhu Yingxin insisted the innocence of Fu Lin was quite obvious. “Scientific research fund from government agencies like the Ministry of Science and Technology and Beijing municipal government is supposed to be all spent as the budget claims. If there is surplus, the government could recover as regulated,” she said. Based on the audit report of Fu’s project, besides the subsidies, they raised another 12.34 million yuan to work on the project.

If it is a third-party business instead of the ones Fu himself was involved could work as the platform for the technology transfer, Fu may be freed from all the allegations against him. According to industry insiders, that may be the problem confronting many in Chinese research institutes these days.

“Most of the time, you’re supposed to seek endorsement and funding of enterprises to first work out the product,” Jiang Yi, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told the Southern Weekly, noting in reality, most companies would not like to shoulder high-stakes projects, so scientists could only depend on themselves to acquire resources. Fu is a case in point and guided by the determination to materialize his findings, the scientist became more and more involved in the business world.

Jiang indicated this could be the most challenging task for transferring research results into commercial use. “A platform that could help with the situation is especially needed for us to take the first step and feeling safe, while currently, this is a blank area in both higher education and social systems.”

“Chinese universities lag far behind higher educational institutes in the US to put scientific research achievements into practical use,” Professor Zhou Qiren of Peking University’s National School of Development told state-run Economic Information Daily, commenting on Fu’s case. “Although these years, China has mapped out a series of policies to encourage the transfer, there is no detailed arrangements or regulations about some key issues,” he said.

Professor Fu has reportedly lodged a complaint to authorities, and asked for more detailed explanations to be made for his being detained for over two years. 

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