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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

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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  1. Avatar

    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 Brands & Marketing

About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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Chinese Actor and State Security Ambassador Li Yifeng Detained for Soliciting Prostitutes

Li Yifeng is not exactly living up to his role as spokesperson for the Ministry of State Security.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese actor and singer Li Yifeng (李易峰) went top trending on Chinese social media today. The actor, who previously starred as brand ambassador for the Ministry of State Security and played Mao Zedong in The Pioneer, has been detained for visiting prostitutes.

On January 10 of 2021, China celebrated its very first National Police Day to give full recognition to the police and national security staff for their efforts. For this special day, the Ministry of State Security launched a promo video starring Chinese actor Li Yifeng as the National Police Ambassador (#李易峰国安形象传片#). But today, it turned out that Li might not have been the best man for the job.

Chinese official media reported on September 11 that the 35-year-old actor has been detained for soliciting prostitutes. The hashtag “Li Yifeng Detained for Visiting Prostitutes” (#李易峰多次嫖娼被行政拘留#) received nearly two billion views on Weibo on Sunday; the hashtag “Beijing Police Informs that Li Yifeng Solicited Prostitutes” (#北京警方通报李易峰多次嫖娼#) received a staggering three billion views.

Shortly after the news was announced, various brands for which Li served as a brand ambassador announced that they were no longer working with the actor. Lukfook Jewellery, Mengniu Dairy, Honma Golf, Panerai, Prada, Sensodyne, King To Nin Jiom, and other brands declared that they had terminated their contract with Li (#多个品牌终止与李易峰合作#).

Li rose to fame in 2007 when he participated in the Chinese My Hero talent show. He later debuted as a singer and became a successful actor, starring in various Chinese TV dramas and films. Li became especially popular after starring in Swords of Legends and won an award for his role in the 2015 Chinese crime film Mr. Six (老炮儿). He would go on to win many more awards. One of his biggest roles was starring as Mao Zedong in the 2021 blockbuster The Pioneer (革命者).

According to Global Times, Li was previously announced as one of the celebrities attending the Mid-Autumn Festival Gala on CCTV on Saturday night, but his name was later deleted from the program.

“I had never expected my idol to collapse like this,” some disappointed fans wrote on Weibo.

In a ‘super topic’ community dedicated to the star, some fans would not give up on their idol yet: “Where is the proof? Besides the Beijing police statement, where is the actual proof?”

On Li Yifeng’s Weibo page, where the actor has over 60 million fans, nothing has been posted since September 5.

The Huading Awards, a famous entertainment award in China, announced that they cancelled Li Yifeng’s title of “Best Actor in China” (#华鼎奖取消李易峰中国最佳男主角等称号#).

“He lost all he had overnight,” some commenters wrote. “Celebrities generally get cancelled for two things: one is evading taxes, the other is sleeping around,” one popular comment said: “So in a nutshell, pay your taxes and don’t sleep around.*”

“Why do you even need to see a prostitute when you’re so good-looking?” others wondered.

One Weibo user (@大漠叔叔) wrote: “Have a good head on your shoulders and just remember one thing. It does not matter how good your reputation is, or how many titles you have, how much the audience loves you, how much the fans embrace you, how many awards you get, it won’t protect you. Stay clear-headed, merit does not outweigh faults! You can’t cross the moral bottomline nor cross the boundaries of the law. You can be canceled just like that.”

By Manya Koetse 

* This comment is loosely translated here, but the Chinese is quite funny because the words ‘taxes’ and ‘sleeping’ sound similar. “明星塌房的两个主要原因:一个睡,一个税。 简而言之:该税的税,不该睡的别睡.”

 

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