But in recent days, EANS’ legitimacy, authority as well as its awards have sparked a tsunami of controversy in China, with a growing number of mainland media outlets and members of the research community questioning whether it is an academic honour or a business deal.

Some investigations have revealed that it is possible to pay to join the academy. Domestic media outlet Hongxing Xinwen, for example, consulted an agency that provides application services and was told that applicants could definitely be selected by paying 180,000 yuan (US$24,900).

The criticism and suspicion surrounding this honour signals a growing cynicism and immunity to foreign awards in Chinese society: as the country gradually emerges as a global leader in science and technology, honours bestowed by Western countries are now subject to more scrutiny.

“It is now time to critically examine the phenomenon of [worshipping] ‘foreign academicians’,” a netizen commented on social media.

03:45

How the ‘Nobel Prize of the East’ was established and became what it is today

How the ‘Nobel Prize of the East’ was established and became what it is today

According to the Post’s investigation, dozens of Chinese people have become academicians of EANS in the past few months, including some respected figures in academia, ranging from professors at China’s top universities to researchers at government research institutes and clinicians at major hospitals.

For example, Ma Fanhua, an associate researcher with Tsinghua University’s school of vehicle and mobility, was elected an academician in December 2023.

Many statements describe the academy, which is based in Hanover, Germany, as “one of the most respected and influential scientific organisations” with more than 1,700 academicians, many of whom are also recipients of world-renowned prizes including the Nobel Prize, the Einstein Prize and the Copernicus Award.

The EANS website, which is mainly in Russian, said in an article on May 3 that it is “not state-owned” like the Chinese or Russian Academy of Sciences, and “we invite the scientists whose work is of academic value and whose achievements benefit people”.

In Europe, however, the most widely recognised research academy is the Academia Europaea founded in 1988, a London-based pan-European academy covering all fields of scholarly inquiry, which serves as an official adviser to the European Union.

In an email response to the Post, Thomas Südhof stressed that he had never heard of the European Academy of Natural Sciences and had no connection with it. He said he was not invited by EANS, but did not give the exact name of the organiser.

Südhof is a neuroscientist at the Stanford School of Medicine who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2013.

According to Südhof and his Chinese collaborator Ellie Wang, he was invited to speak at an event in China where he was unexpectedly asked to participate in an impromptu photo session with people associated with the event organiser.

Nobel laureate Thomas C. Südhof was pictured at the ceremony in Beijing held by the European Academy of Natural Sciences, but when the Post asked him about his involvement, he said he had “no idea what these awards were”. Photo: Handout

He said he had congratulated the recipients on their awards as a matter of courtesy, although he had “no idea what these awards were”.

He also expressed the feeling of being “deceived and tricked” when the Post brought the issue to his attention, as the organiser of the event had implied his affiliation with the “academy” by using the photos.

In Chinese academia, honour and fame often come with other privileges, such as an advantage in applying for research funding.
A scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who asked not to be named, said that it was unlikely that researchers were unaware of the real value of the honours they were applying for, but they were motivated by the potential benefits.

The scientist said he had also been approached in March by an agency inviting him to apply to join the academy.

On Wednesday, an article published by the China Association for Science and Technology wrote that domestic research institutions should clean up fake titles and paid honours, avoid supporting opportunists and giving resources to them.

Under the article, one commenter wrote that he had received similar application invitations many times, and one time in particular, when he asked if it was free or not, he was told he needed to pay 350,000 yuan.

The Post tried to contact the academy’s Chinese representative, Wu Jihua, but did not receive a response.

In his interview with Hongxin Xinwen on Tuesday, Wu denied that the academy’s qualifications were for sale or that it had ever charged an applicant a fee.