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2018-12-21 13:08:42

A year and a half ago, a company sued Tianjin University over losses it suffered from an ambitious project to produce boron isotopes on an industrial scale, after a key technology provided by a professor at the university proved infeasible. This week, the company — Hebei Kabuer Carbon Product Sales Co. Ltd. — appealed a Dec. 3 ruling from Tianjin’s arbitration commission that would require the university to pay 6 million yuan ($870,000) in compensation — a small fraction of the 200 million yuan the company had requested.

At the center of the dispute is Zhang Weijiang, a professor at the northern Chinese university known for its chemistry department. He claimed to have conducted promising research into the production of two different boron isotopes from raw materials containing the element. The isotopes — boron-10 and boron-11 — have applications in a wide range of technologies, including military, nuclear, and electronic. Zhang said he had done a successful test that proved the technology could be applied on an industrial scale, and in 2012 the university signed a contract with Hebei Kabuer in neighboring Hebei province.

An opening ceremony for the project was held in March 2013. Together with other shareholders, Kabuer board member Wang Zengliang invested 260 million yuan (then around $42 million) in land, construction, scientific equipment, and more. Wang paid the university and its research group a total of 34 million yuan as a “technology transfer fee” — with 6 million going to the school and the rest going into the bank accounts of Zhang and his colleagues. Local media at the time lauded the endeavor as a “high-tech project” that would “break the technological monopoly of foreign countries” — referring to the fact that China has long relied on trading partners to supply its boron products.

Several factory buildings and an office were built in an economic development zone in Handan, a city in Hebei. A separation tower specially designed for the project was also built but never used: The test to prove that Zhang’s technology could be commercialized had failed.

Wang Zengliang points to the gate of his factory in Handan, Hebei province, 2017. From @中国青年报 on Weibo

Wang Zengliang points to the gate of his factory in Handan, Hebei province, 2017. From @中国青年报 on Weibo

Cases of university professors securing funds by presenting questionable research as viable investments are frequent even among China’s top scientists. In January 2014, media reported on the case of a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a professor at Fudan University who plagiarized foreign technology and gained more than 40 million yuan from national scientific research funds. The same year, Gu Zhenggui, a professor at Nanjing Normal University, was found to have earned 620,000 yuan from faking a chemical project. However, in neither case was the professor involved punished or removed from his post.

In 2015, Zhang’s project received a total of 10 million yuan in funding from the Hebei provincial government and the development zone in which Zhang had set up the company. In the fund application form seen by Sixth Tone, Zhang’s department at Tianjin University stated that the test for whether the technology could be implemented on a large scale had been successful, and the school’s Office of Science and Technology had stamped its seal on the document. Zhang proposed producing 5 tons of boron-10 and 20 tons of boron-11 products per year — an unprecedented quantity for China.

Later the same year, another company, Tianjin Kunqiao Venture Capital Co. Ltd., filed a lawsuit against Tianjin University. Tianjin Kunqiao had financially supported Zhang to conduct pilot tests of the technology — which Wang had not known. When Wang attended the trial in June 2016, he learned that Zhang’s technology was not suitable for an industrial scale, according to a 2014 report from the university that was presented as evidence.

Records of the 2016 trial obtained by Communist Youth League-affiliated newspaper China Youth Daily show that Zhang admitted to fabricating the results of the pilot test, adding three unrelated patents to the report so that it would meet passing criteria. The cooperation between the university and Tianjin Kunqiao ended when the tests failed. But both sides had agreed that any profits later made from the technology would be split. When Tianjin Kunqiao found out about Zhang’s contract with Wang, they sued and lost. An appeal in the case is still ongoing.

Wang told Sixth Tone that during a phone call in May 2017, Zhang had reiterated his claim that the test experiment had been a success. When contacted by Sixth Tone in June 2017, Zhang said that Tianjin University had issued an official response regarding its contracts with Wang and that he himself would not comment on the issue. When asked whether the experiment had been successful, Zhang immediately hung up the phone.

Tianjin University issued a notice on its Weibo microblog on June 28, 2017, saying it was no longer party to any valid contract with Wang or his companies. The notice did not mention the test of Zhang’s technology or its results.

For his part, Wang disputes the university’s claims about the contracts. In October 2012, he established Zhonghan Boron Industry Co. Ltd., which in 2013 also signed a contract with Tianjin University. He said the second contract was necessary so the university could change the wording of their agreement and avoid leasing the same technology to two companies. Bai Peng, another Tianjin University professor who is doing research in the same field as Zhang, had also signed a contract with another company for exclusive rights to test the technology. According to the terms of the contract between the university and Zhonghan Boron, the earlier contract between the university and Hebei Kabuer would be nullified. But one legal expert told Wang that because the two signatories were not the same for both agreements, both contracts should still be valid.

Chinese media outlets began reporting on the dispute in May 2017. The following month, on June 5, Wang applied to Tianjin’s arbitration commission to mediate the dispute, requesting that the second contract be canceled and that he be paid 200 million yuan in compensation for his losses.

On Dec. 3 of this year, Wang received a verdict: The commission ruled that Tianjin University should return the 6 million yuan it had received as part of the technology transfer fee — a far cry from the 200 million yuan Wang had requested. Wang told Sixth Tone on Friday that he feels cheated by the arbitration commission, whose procedure and decision he sees as flawed. Wang added that his company had appealed the decision to the Tianjin Second Intermediate People’s Court, which on Monday accepted the case.

Zhang Zhaoquan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone that he had bought a kilogram of boron products from Zhang several years ago. He said that Tianjin University’s technology specializes in producing boron-11 products, but that it “does not seem very effective.”

“When Zhang [Weijiang] handed me the boron-11 samples, it was in several batches,” said Zhang Zhaoquan — who added that to his knowledge, nobody in China is currently capable of producing boron-11 products on an industrial scale.

Editors: David Paulk and Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A view of the gate at Tianjin University, May 31, 2004. IC)