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Nominating a Liquor Engineer for an Academician Title – An Insult to the Honor?

Nominating a chief engineer of a liquor company for academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the highest honor in the field, has caused controversy in China. People think it is an insult to the honor because they wonder how an engineer in the wine and liquor industry can represent China’s strategy to be “invigorating through science and technology” and whether the liquor technology can have a significant impact on the progress of mankind. People also feel that the academician election process lacks transparency and could be compromised.

On February 17, Guizhou Maotai, a well-known Chinese liquor brand, announced on its official public account that Wang Li, Chief Engineer and Chief Quality Officer of the Maotai Group, was nominated to qualify for 2021 academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

This is not the first time that the Chinese Academy of Engineering had a controversial academician nominated in an election. In 2011, a deputy dean and researcher at the Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Institute of the China National Tobacco Corporation was elected as an academician of the Academy of Engineering. Over 100 academicians co-signed a letter to the presidium of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, questioning the qualification of the candidate and requesting that the presidium withdraw the decision, but their objection failed.

In 2015, People’s Daily published an article exposing the inside story during the academician election process claiming it involved personal connections and bribery with money. The article said that it was disappointing and sad to see that the really talented who are not well connected weren’t even given a chance to be nominated, whereas people who were less academic but had good connections would win.

There have been many disappointments in academician elections in the past and China ended up losing those talents to the U.S. One example is Yan Nieng, a structural biologist at Tsinghua University. She didn’t win the academician title in 2017. Yan left Tsinghua University and joined Princeton University. Yan has received many awards while working at Princeton and, in April 2019, was elected as a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Xu Chenyang, a math genius, is another example. In 2012, after receiving a doctoral degree and a number of academic awards, Xu went back to China. Xu failed to win the academician title. He left China and went to work for MIT. In 2021, Xu received the 2021 Col Algebra Prize award.

The academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering is the highest academic title in engineering science and technology in China. The academician election is conducted using a committee voting on a list of nominated candidates once every two years. It is a lifetime honor and is supposed to be awarded to scientists who have made a significant contribution in the scientific field. Earlier this year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering announced that they have started the 2021 academician election and they will elect no more than 88 academicians this year.

1., February 18, 2021
2. Sina, February 20, 2021