Zhai Tianlin – also known as Ronald Zhai – is a well-known actor in China who is used to the limelight.
With more than 11 million followers on the social media website Sina Weibo, he’s more accustomed to positive comments and praise from fans.
However, this week he has received extra attention, for all the wrong reasons.
At first, he was jubilant after being accepted into Peking University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, to study for a doctorate at the Guanghua School of Management.
He posted his admittance letter confirming his place saying: “A new journey, please cheer for little Zhai!”
This had 48,000 shares, and 79,000 comments. It led to a number of people searching online for his previous written pieces.
But the South China Morning Post spotted discrepancies in Zhai’s submissions. It reported that two of his essays came under scrutiny, with one containing no citations at all and another that “appeared uncannily similar to an article published by an academic journal in 2006.”
Zhai’s management company initially rejected the claim, but the news website, Global Times, revealed he had submitted a paper that was “40 percent plagiarised“, sparking claims of academic fraud and corruption, and anger that the rich and powerful were getting admissions to a top university.
By 14 February, the actor, who stars in the Chinese television series White Deer Plain, published an apology when claims of historic plagiarism came to light, prompting hundreds of thousands of reactions.
“Vanity and good fortune have made me forget myself,” he wrote. “It is due to my misconduct that this school’s reputation has been affected. It has impacted academic discussions and filled the public with disappointment and a lack of trust.”
He went on to say he had formally applied to withdraw his position for post-doctoral research and he was sorry to have disappointed his fans who supported him.
More than 175,000 Weibo users have since used the hashtag #ZhaiTianlinApologises.
His friend and actor, Yin Zheng, posted: “You know you did wrong and want to change, it probably sounds too good to be true, but the world is still kind”, which gained 262,000 likes.
Many users were angry for the late apology, especially as his studio had threatened to take legal action against those making online allegations. However, ardent fans showed their continued faith in him, with 90,000 agreeing he was “still a good actor” and 63,000 acknowledging he did the right thing to apologise.
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Beijing Film Academy, from where Zhai graduated as a PhD student in 2014, said it was cooperating with the authorities about other issues that have triggered social concern, adding “The Ministry of Education, the Beijing Municipal Party Committee and the Municipal Government is attaching great importance to this.”
At a recent news conference, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it had ordered the relevant authorities to investigate, and also look into similar possible cases, reaffirming its zero tolerance towards academic misconduct.