I have returned to my country after one negative experience as a postdoc in China. In short, I was hired based on false salary & funding expectations supported by shady vague contracts written in Chinese. I stayed until the end as to escape a raging crisis at home.

Now I am back home, among long-date colleagues & collaborators. A large international conference in our field of study starts today. The very same PIs who lured me into their trap are coming, now in my country, actively seeking for new candidates. Surely they expect me to treat them politely, coldly at best. These people owe me a lot of money, plus stolen time and project ideas.

I think they expect me to stay nice and quiet for fear of getting bad recommendations and in the hopes of perhaps getting paid/compensated in the future. The culture here is certainly different from what they expect. In just few hours I will meet them at the conference hall, for the opening.

I am revolted. At least in my country, LoRs are not required for getting jobs, and I do not think they're too influential outside of their institutions.

Should I openly expose them? Or would that just label me as some begrudged nuthead?

There is one special roundtable about work ethics included, and I am thinking of approaching the organisation about this. Any suggestions, ideas on this, would be appreciated.

P.S. This is not in the US.

UPDATE:

Finally the event is coming to an end. I have carefully considered the views of commenters and answers here. Thanks to all for so much attention.

I have avoided the scammers as best as I could. They approached me individually, on different casual occasions, to greet and initiate some chat. I was just plain cold, cutting it short. Fortunately they got the message and have been also avoiding eye contact and interaction. I have outlined the absurd situation to a large number of peers, yet only when asked. “How was it in China”, “I remember you complaining about some problems, how did that fare” etc. I did not mention names, except when directly asked for confirmation. A couple of friends are part of fhe organizing comitee. They agree in that it’s best to only bring this up to the chairman in case these scammers are openly advertising positions with false information. I did contact some local reporters I know who asked for an outline. Yet once they had the story they didn’t reply. I don’t think then this will hit the newspapers unless something new and remarkable happens.

The event ends tomorrow. They might approach me one last time. If they do I’ll comment below. Otherwise I’m leaving this at this. I’ve focused on intensively networking and getting collaborations moving, learning new ideas. Much easier without having to interact with this mess. Hopefully I’ve warned enough people to at least avoid someone else fall in this trap. Hopefully they’ll move to a different field or just stop. Thanks to all here.

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    Can you say what you mean by "openly expose"? I'm imagining something like standing up in a crowded room, pointing and shouting "There sits the man who has wronged me!" like a scene from a Gothic novel. That certainly isn't something I'd advise. – Nate Eldredge Aug 5 at 18:04
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    @NateEldredge Yeah, as much as I'd love living such a moment that wouldn't be a wise plan. However I might: (i) not sake hands and smile back; (ii) ask at the end of the relevant talk why isn't my contribution acknowledged; (iii) approach my other friends in the open stating they just scammed off salary, funding, data. No need to shout and wear a black mantle there. I am considering contacting a local reporter (I exposed scientific misconduct in local newspapers before). – Scientist Aug 5 at 18:19
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    "This is not in the US" it would be more helpful to know where it is, than where it isn't. What is acceptable one place may not be in another, even in bordering countries. – user94036 Aug 5 at 18:50
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    @user94036 Sorry I understand, but am keeping this general to avoid making the exposure already here, and also to support others in a similar situation elsewhere, who come across this discussion. By emphasizing "not US" I imply that a lawsuit are not the default course of action in resolving disputes locally, which I think is the case for most of the world. Also I think most active respondents are in the US and think according with local principles/standards, so I leave this as a reminder. – Scientist Aug 5 at 18:55
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    I understand your emotions and urge to prevent others for entering such trap. I fully agree with Buffy on this one : “If you want to play power politics make sure that you have the power first.”. You do not have that power, yet. However, I just want to mention that by posting this question, you already reached potential candidates. You are not completely powerless. In my view, the best ‘revenge’ is not to fight them openly but to excell in your career. Warn you peers discretely. – user93911 Aug 5 at 20:52
up vote 14 down vote accepted

If I might propose an alternative?

Your goal here isn't necessarily to accuse the supervisors in question, but to warn potential vulnerable victims to their scam. I don't work in academia, but I do sometimes have to cover the topic of government corruption, and avoiding slander can sometimes be simply the case of not accusing anybody directly.

So instead of saying these X people did Y terrible thing to me, consider:

I experienced Y terrible thing that has A, B, C traits (EG Chinese document that contains a dodgy contract, being paid less than stated amount).

So in your case, what you're doing is giving the people sufficient information to identify the scam/trap themselves (without saying who is responsible. If anyone asks, you can simply decline to name). Anyone reading between the lines will see what X person(s) are doing fits A, B, C traits and put two and two together. If X person(s) accuse you of accusing them, you can simply point out you never even mentioned them by name.

For them to argue it's slander, they would have to prove that their actions matches the ABC traits, which would mean they would effectively be proving it is a scam.

For handling them directly, I would propose you alert the appropriate legal/goverment/police department that handles fraud (potentially as an anonymous tip-off, but more useful if you were a named source), because if they induced you into accepting a contract via deception, what they are committing in most countries is effectively a crime, and it's likely you're not the only person they've scammed, and they appear to be, as you say, hunting for more.

It's worth adding: If they've left you out of pocket, you might even be able to get a no-win-no-fee lawyer to chase the costs back. Especially if you still have all the documentation to prove what you got wasn't what they induced you to believe.

Summary:

Your goal here is to use what you've learned in order to alert people to the signs of a possible scam so they don't fall for the trap. It might not just be the people you've met that are engaged in such practices, so it's probably an excellent idea to make it a warning in general.

Any matters of dubious legal practices should be handled legally and not in the public arena.

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    If I were OP, I'd calmly ask my former supervisor, in front of all other people, if he would be able to resolve, for other future postdocs, the numerous legal and bureaucratic issues that plagued his own postdoc there. – Magicsowon Aug 6 at 7:06
  • @Magicsowon I’ve done that while in China, several times. They of course will say there will be no problems, without flimching, like before. Probably will deny any real problems took place in the first place, “the guy is weird”, etc. But yeah, I’ll do that if they announce open positions on the microphone! Thanks for the suggestion! Why not make it an answer? – Scientist Aug 6 at 18:24
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    @Scientist I understand where you're coming from. I live in a profoundly dishonest culture myself - not China. Of course they will deny everything. But you present only the facts you can prove without making accusations. I think it's enough to give people planning to go there second thoughts. The calmer you are the more likely they are to try to shut you up. If that happens, you won. – Magicsowon Aug 7 at 8:08

There is a lot going on here. If you want to play power politics make sure that you have the power first.

You contemplate making an accusation. Depending on local law and custom this could open you to a charge of slander that you would have to defend. Far in the past a duel on the green would be seen as the appropriate response. Now it is lawyers instead of pistols, of course.

If you can make the claim fairly and can also do so anonymously you protect yourself. If the journalists you intend to speak with can really protect "their sources" (i.e. your identity) it might be possible. But they will need evidence even though they are less susceptible to a charge of slander.

But an emotional response won't help anyone and might reflect badly on yourself.

But I see your dilemma. Others may be at risk here if you don't make some attempt. I think that the conference chairs that I have worked with would listen to your complaint if you can contact them. This won't guarantee anonymity, of course, but in the best case it could put other powerful people in your camp. On the other hand, if the committee is somehow aligned with the PIs in question it would be the worst situation of all.

One rather scary possibility is that you confront them privately and tell them your complaints and that you don't like to see them recruiting others into the same situation you faced. If you know of any others who already faced the same situation and you can confront the PI as a group it would be even better. Some people have no shame at all and some are driven by forces even they can't control, but you might let them think that withdrawal is a better option than continuing. Scary, though.

Ethics don't require, in a case like this, that you put yourself at risk to save others.

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    Thanks for the sensible insights. I understand the theoretical danger of being accused of slander, etc, but I highly doubt that would apply in this case. The law and official procedures in my country are such a pain already for a local. As Chinese these guys are stiffly restricted on how long they can stay, and this is a small town. I'd be very hard for them to pursue this, and they're not culturally inclined. Plus, I have all proof that I was mistreated. As mentioned, the consulate was directly involved. – Scientist Aug 5 at 19:02
  • I understand the bad exposure from passionately spluttering things out, and I believe this is one the pillars of their confidence. I would have to be crazy to "make a scene" against a professor in public in China. However my country isn't like that. A great scene actually often makes one get quite popular (locally). I think I can control the emotional display enough, as I am not a 100% local. – Scientist Aug 5 at 19:07
  • Now, actually I am not scared of confronting them face to face. This is actually how we sort things out here, fights are fairly common. I'd prefer to avoid that, though, because I might snap and thus escalate, and it invites them to come up with straight-face lies, threats, accusations, etc. These guys will immediately act out any sort of story to support their "face". – Scientist Aug 5 at 19:14
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    Re the lawyers : it is worth remembering the lawyers mantra : « a man is innocent until proven broke... » – Solar Mike Aug 5 at 21:27

I advise you to talk with a lawyer ASAP.

If it were in my country the embassy/consulate was involved, as per work law, I can choose the jurisdiction as my home town...and so, being the jurisdiction local, local laws kick in, and a signature of mine in the Chinese version of contracts would be mostly nil because I do not understand Chinese.

However there might be lengths of time to do that, 1 year at most year in my case, so hurry up.

Some of the charges besides monetary might be criminal...as said, pay a consultation with a lawyer to clear out if you have any leg to stand on in a case.

I would also talk with your University body to see it is worth filling a written complaint that prevents them to deal as an accredited academic reputable entity locally. If you can find others that were also wronged, so much the better.

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    I don’t think suing them abroad for having scammed me in China would apply. As an ex-postdoc I have no affiliation at the moment. If you meant their university on raising a complaint, I’ve done already and it was like talking to the wind. The typical strategy is feigning dead / deaf / absent to avoid conflict as possible. – Scientist Aug 6 at 2:04
  • I considered suing them in China but almost everyone said it’d be a huge waste of money and time, and the court would be tempted to rule on the university side to save face. – Scientist Aug 6 at 2:05
  • @Scientist I do agree suing them in China is a waste of time and money. If indeed the program has no ties back home, yes, you are out of luck. As for feigning dead, the rule is put it on writing. – Rui F Ribeiro Aug 6 at 7:23

I do not know your local laws and I am not a lawyer, but I suggest that the appropriate way to speak out is to use your local courts. It sounds like you have a legal issue (wage theft) not an academic one. You can begin litigation against your former supervisor.

Presumably, if your former supervisor appears in your local court, they can win any litigation on the basis of jurisdiction. But you are interested in speaking out and stopping your former supervisor from seeking new victims. Unsuccessful litigation could achieve those goals. I would expect your former supervisor to respond to litigation by avoiding your country.

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    I guess this is why he wrote "This is not in the US". – pipe Aug 5 at 23:10
  • I appreciate the strategy of just suing for whatever to make the case public, but that’s an awfully expensive time-consuming strategy. It’s a nice strategy for publication and attracting publicity, if one does have a fortune. For now by the time I write this pieceand get it filed, they’ll be off the country again. – Scientist Aug 6 at 2:10
  • @Scientist in some countries the government pays for wage theft cases. Small claims cases can be cheap. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 6 at 5:57
  • @pipe Most countries offer similar legal recourse. It’s by no means specific to the US. That said, given the context of this question the courts aren’t likely to help much, and at any rate won’t fix OP’s immediate dilemma. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 7 at 16:52

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