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Zhai Tianlin’s Alleged Plagiarism Triggers Discussions on Academic Cheating in Chinese Universities

“Colleges and Universities face great corruption problems, that is what you should be looking into.”

Gabi Verberg

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Earlier this month, Chinese actor Zhai Tianlin (翟天临) drew the public’s attention for his appearance at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, where he starred as a police officer preventing his parents from being scammed. Now, Zhai, again, is at the center of attention: not for his acting skills, but for allegedly committing academic fraud.

The famous actor is a Beijing Film Academy Ph.D. graduate and postdoctoral candidate at Peking University, one of China’s most renowned universities.

His alleged academic misconduct has been a topic of discussion for some days now. During a live broadcast with fans, Zhai apparently said he did not know what CNKI (知网) is, an academic database that all scholars in China will be familiar with.

It led to suspicions on Zhai’s academic standing, and people on the Quora-like Q&A platform Zhihu accused Zhai of not publishing any academic papers in recognized scholarly journals – something that is mandatory for Ph.D. students in China in order to fulfill their graduation requirements.

Zhai’s academic records increasingly became the focus of attention on February 9th, when one Weibo user (PITD亚洲虐待博士组织), a graduate student from Beijing, posted the results of a plagiarism detection test that was run on one of Zhai’s papers.

The test result revealed that of the 2783 words used in the paper, that was published last year, 1482 words were copied from other texts, indicating a 40.4% similarity score.

After the Beijing Film Academy released a statement that they would be investigating Zhai Tianlin, state media outlet China Daily posted a message on their Weibo account, stating that “academic standards must be the same for everyone” and that “postdoctoral researchers are a university’s greatest honor, ” and that “who wants to carry the crown should also carry the weight.”

On that same day, Peking University also published a statement saying that they are investigating the incident.

Zhai Tianlin (1987), who is also known as Ronald Zhai, is most known for starring in various popular Chinese TV shows and dramas, such as White Deer Plain and The Advisors Alliance.

The plagiarism allegation case has become a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media this week. The hashtag “Peking University Responds to Zhai Tianlin Case”  (#北大回应翟天临事件#) has been viewed a staggering 650 million times on Weibo at time of writing, while the hashtag “Beijing Film Academy Sets Up Zhai Tianlin Investigation Team” (#北电成立翟天临事件调查组#) received more than 490 million views.

The storm is not likely to blow over soon, as new reports now also allege that Zhai’s MA-thesis relies heavily on the scholarly work of Chen Kun, a famous Chinese actor who also attended the Beijing Film Academy.

Although the scandal has triggered countless reactions condemning Zhai, there are also many people on social media who are directing their anger towards the universities and state media, with one typical comment saying: “By solely focusing on Zhai, you are avoiding the real problem. Colleges and universities face great corruption problems, that is what you should be looking into.”

Another person wrote: “I feel like the public opinion is focused too much on this case of ‘academic misconduct.’ What the media should be investigating is: why was the paper not checked for plagiarism before its publication? What the Beijing Film Academy should be looking into is how somebody can graduate with a paper that is not up to standard? And how someone who clearly doesn’t hold the appropriate academic abilities has access to its programme.”

“Peking University and Beijing Film Academy are both responsible for this fraud. How could they ever enroll such a fraudulent person?!” others wrote. 

Some commenters seem to have no trust in China’s academic standard, saying: “Are you telling me you [the universities] didn’t know about this when you admitted him? Now you are setting up investigation teams, but it is all just for show.”

Academic corruption in the Chinese educational context has been a well-known problem for years. As early as 2002, the Ministry of Education implemented various policies to combat academic misconduct, defining it as an act of academic dishonesty that is punishable, but the problem is still widespread (Kai 2012).

Some studies suggest that one of the factors that play a role in plagiarism in China relate to the fact that ‘plagiarism’ is something that is often defined in very general terms, with university handbooks nor policies clearly codifying instances of “appropriate and inappropriate source use” (Hu & Lei 2015, 236).

There are also many other factors at play, however, such as the pressure for doctorate students to publish their papers, and the phenomenon of  “publishing cash incentives,” which would allegedly trigger more academic fraud.

On Chinese social media, many people express that they hope that the institutions involved will “set an example” for other universities and “be transparent” in the way they’ll handle Zhai in case he is found guilty of plagiarism.

Many also pointed out the irony in the fact that it was Zhai who played the police officer that prevented his parents from being scammed during the CCTV New Years’ Eve Gala.

“This is just all so embarrassing,” some write: “Now it looks like not just Zhai’s PhD status should be taken from him, but also his MA title.”

Others suggest that this whole scandal would make an excellent topic for another TV drama, starring Zhai Tianlin, doing what he does best: acting. Some voices suggest that people should wait for the investigations into Zhai’s work to be completed before condemning him. With the massive online attention for this case, it might not take too long for more facts to surface on the case. We’ll keep you updated.

By Gabi Verberg and Manya Koetse

References

Hu, Guangwei and Jun Lei. 2015. “Chinese University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism.” ETHICS & BEHAVIOR 25(3): 233–255.

Kai, Ren. 2012. “Fighting against Academic Corruption: A Critique of Recent Policy Developments in China.” Higher Education Policy (25): 19–38.

 

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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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    Rob

    February 15, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    I did research into Chinese Universities and their (lack of) academic policies – not a single University among the top 50 in China had clear written policies. More to the point, the Universities I and friends worked in (USTB, Renmin, UIR, BFSU, UIBE) not only had no policies, but teachers who caught students were not allowed to apply suitable consequences (I caught two Masters students and the Department Head tried to convince me not to fail them).

    Zhai’s case is only at issue because he’s highly public; nobodies in China who cheat and plagiarize still manage to get away with it, and University departments permit it and defend students who do it.

    Of course, Chinese academia is full of this; there was a scandal in Beijing back in 2010-2011 where a group were translating academic papers into Chinese and selling them to Chinese scholars for publishing; in other cases, Uni profs were stealing their students’ work and publishing it as their own (USTB had a couple of cases of this).

    Plagiarism is like any form of corruption in China – it only matters if you get caught in a very public way.

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China Celebs

Weibo Blows Up after Fan Bingbing Announces Breakup

It’s been a tough year for Chinese celebrity Fan Bingbing.

Manya Koetse

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Two years after their engagement, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and actor Chen Li have announced their breakup.

On the night of June 27 (China Standard Time), news came out that Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing is breaking up with her partner, Chinese actor Chen Li.

It was Fan herself who announced the separation through a post on social media, writing:

We go through all kinds of farewells during our lifetime. The love and warmth we gain throughout our encounters become everlasting forces. I want to thank you for all the love and support you’ve given me. Thank you for your care and love in the future. We are no longer ‘we’, but we are still ourselves.

The post soon received over 180,000 comments and more than 650,000 likes.

Chen Li also posted a message on his Weibo account, saying:

From friends to lovers, and now back to friends. Emotions can change, but the purest feeling between you and me will not change. The trust and support we have for each other will always be there. We are no longer ‘we’, but we are still ourselves.”

This breakup comes after a difficult year in Fan’s career. In summer of 2018, the 37-year-old actress was at the center of a social media storm due to a tax evasion scandal.

She disappeared from the public eye for months, and then returned with an emotional apology on Weibo.

The announcement of the split has triggered thousands of reactions on Weibo, where the hashtag “Fan Bingbing and Li Chen Split Up” (#范冰冰李晨分手#) had received 380 million views by Thursday night.

At time of writing, the breakup is dominating Weibo’s top trending topics, with many netizens commenting that Weibo is ‘exploding’ and that Weibo servers must be overheating due to the celebrity news.

It is often celebrity news that causes Weibo to blow up. A recent incident of Chinese teen idol smoking inside a Beijing restaurant also triggered millions of views and comments.

When Chinese singer and actor Lu Han announced his relationship with actress Guan Xiaotong in 2017, it even led to a rare temporary breakdown of Weibo’s servers.

By Manya Koetse

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Faking Street Photography: Why Staged “Street Snaps” Are All the Rage in China

Staged street photography is the latest “15 minutes of fame” trend on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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It looks as if they are spontaneously photographed or filmed by one of China’s many street photographers, but it is actually staged. Chinese online influencers – or the companies behind them – are using street photography as part of their social media strategy. And then there are those who are mocking them.

Recently a new trend has popped up on Chinese social media: people posting short videos on their accounts that create the impression that they are being spotted by street fashion photographers. Some look at the camera in a shy way, others turn away, then there are those who smile and cheekily stick out their tongue at the camera.

Although it may appear to be all spontaneous, these people – mostly women – are actually not randomly being caught on camera by one of China’s many street fashion photographers in trendy neighborhoods. They have organized this ‘fashion shoot’ themselves, often showing off their funny poses and special moves, from backward flips to splits, to attract more attention (see example in video embedded below).

In doing so, these self-made models are gaining more fans on their Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, or WeChat accounts, and are turning their social media apps into their very own stage.

 

Street Photography in Sanlitun

 

The real street photography trend has been ongoing in China for years, near trendy areas such as Hangzhou’s Yintai shopping mall, or Chengdu’s Taikoo Li.

One place that is especially known for its many street photographers is Beijing’s see-and-be-seen Sanlitun area, where photographers have since long been gathering around the Apple or Uniqlo stores with their big lens cameras to capture people walking by and their trendy fashion.

A few years ago, Thatsmag featured an article discussing this phenomenon, asking: “Who are these guys and what are they doing with their photos?”

Author Dominique Wong found that many of these people are older men, amateur photographers, who are simply snapping photos of attractive, fashionable, and unique-looking people as their hobby.

But there are also those who are working for street fashion blogs or style magazines such as P1, and are actually making money with their street snaps capturing China’s latest fashion trends.

Image by 新浪博客

People featured in these street snaps can sometimes go viral and become internet celebrities (网红). One of China’s most famous examples of a street photographed internet celebrity is “Brother Sharp.”

‘Brother Sharp’ became an online hit in 2009 (image via Chinasmack).

It’s been ten years since “Brother Sharp” (犀利哥), a homeless man from Ningbo, became an online hit in China for his fashionable and handsome appearance, after his street snap went trending on the Chinese internet.

 

Staged Street Scenes

 

But what if nobody’s snapping your pics and you want to go viral with your “Oh, I am being spotted by street fashion photographers” video? By setting up their own “street snap” shoots, online influencers take matters into their own hands.

It is not just individuals who are setting up these shoots; there are also companies and brands that do so in order to make their (fashion) products more famous. According to People’s Daily, in Hangzhou alone, there are over 200 photographers for such “street snaps” and hundreds of thousands of models for such “performances.”

The photographers can, supposedly, earn about 20,000 to 30,000 yuan ($2,890-$4,335) per day and the models are well paid.

In this way, the “street snap performance” phenomenon is somewhat similar to another trend that especially became apparent in China around 2015-2016, namely that of ‘bystander videos’ capturing a public scene. Although these videos seem to be real, there are actually staged.

One such example happened in 2017 when a video went viral of a young woman being scolded on a Beijing subway for wearing a revealing cosplay outfit.

The story attracted much attention on social media at the time, with many netizens siding with the young woman and praising her for responding coolly although the woman was attacking her. Later, the whole scene turned out to be staged with the purpose of generating more attention for the ad of a “cool” food delivery platform behind the older lady.

In 2015, photos of a ‘romantic proposal’ made its rounds on social media when a young man asked his pregnant girlfriend to marry him using over 50 packs of diapers in the shape of a giant heart. One bag of diapers carried a diamond ring inside. It was later said the scene was sponsored by Libero Diapers.

 

Wanghong Economy

 

Both the latest street snap trend and the staged video trend are all part of China’s so-called “Wanghong economy.” Wǎnghóng (网红) is the Chinese term for internet celebrities, KOL (Key Opinion Leader) or ‘influencer.’ Influencer marketing is hot and booming in China: in 2018, the industry was estimated to be worth some $17.16 billion.

Being a wanghong is lucrative business: the more views, clicks, and fans one has, the more profit they can make through e-commerce and online advertising.

Using Chinese KOLs to boost brands can be an attractive option for advertisers, since their social media accounts have a huge fanbase. Prices vary on the amount of fans the ‘influencer’ has. In 2015, for example, the Chinese stylist Xiao P already charged RMB 76,000 ($11,060) for a one-time product mention on his Weibo account (36 million fans).

According to the “KOL budget Calculator” by marketing platform PARKLU, a single sponsored post on the Weibo account of a famous influencer will cost around RMB 60,000 ($8730).

The current staged street snap hype is interesting for various online media businesses in multiple ways. On short video app Douyin, for example, the hugely popular street snap videos come with a link that allows app users to purchase the exact same outfits as the girls in the videos.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an online survey by Tencent found that 54% of college-age respondents had the ambition to become an “online celebrity.”

 

Making Non-Fashion Fashion: The Farm Field as a Catwalk

 

Although becoming an actual online celebrity used to be a far-fetched dream for many Chinese netizens, the latest staged-street-snap trend creates the possibility for people to experience their “15 minutes of fame” online.

Just as in previous online trends such as the Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge or A4 Waist Challenge, you see that many people soon participate in them, and that they are then followed by an “anti-movement” of people making fun of the trend or using it to promote a different social point-of-view.

The 2018 “Flaunt Your Wealth” challenge, for example, in which Chinese influencers shared pictures of themselves falling out of their cars with their expensive possessions all around them, was followed by an Anti-Flaunt Your Wealth movement, in which ordinary people mocked the challenge by showing themselves on the floor with their diplomas, military credentials, painting tools, or study books around them.

In case of the (staged) “Fashion Street Photography” movement, that now has over 103 million views on Weibo (#全国时尚街拍大赏# and #街拍艺术行为大赏#), you can also see that many people have started to mock it.

“I find [this trend] so embarrassing that I want to toss my phone away, yet I can’t help but watch it,” one Weibo user (@十一点半关手机) writes, with others agreeing, saying: “This is all so awkward, it just makes my skin crawl.”

The anti-trend answer to the staged street shoot hype now is that people are also pretending to be doing such a street snap, but ridiculing it by making over-the-top movements, doing it in ‘uncool’ places, wearing basic clothing, or setting up a funny situation (see embedded tweet below).

Some of these short videos show ‘models’ walking in a rural area, pretending to be photographed by a ‘street fashion photographer’ – it’s an anti-trend that’s become a trend in itself (see videos in embedded tweets below).

Although this ‘anti-trend’ is meant in a mocking way, it is sometimes also a form of self-expression for young people for whom the Sanlitun-wannabe-models life is an extravagant and sometimes unattainable one.

They don’t need trendy streets and Chanel bags to pretend to be models: even the farm field can be their catwalk.

In the end, the anti-trend “models” on Chinese social media are arguably much cooler than the influencers pretending to be photographed. Not only do they convey a sense of authenticity, they also have something else that matters the most in order to be truly cool and attractive: a sense of humor.

Also read: From Mountains of Taishan to Faces of Amsterdam – Interview with Street Photographer Jimmy on the Run

Also read: Beijing Close-Up: Photographer Tom Selmon Crosses the Borders of Gender in China

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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