Chapter 2

Beijing Film Academy is a name that commands respect in the Chinese entertainment industry, which can be attested by the annual spectacle of a long queue of aspiring young students at academy gate, waiting to be auditioned by the academy’s admission panel.

However, a scandal involved a graduating movie star and the academy’s director threatened to bring the academy’s name into disrepute.

All originated from a live video appearance featuring a movie and television star named Zhai. Aged 28, Zhai is a rising star in the Chinese entertainment business, commanding a loyal fan base of up to 10 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. What separated him from run-of-the-mill actors is the focus he placed on his academic achievement: he has already been awarded a doctoral degree by Beijing Film Academy and recently been admitted as a postdoctoral student by Peking University’s Guanghua Management School.

But During the live video appearance, when faced the question by a fan regarding China National Knowledge Infrastructure(CNKI), an essay database used to detect plagiarism, he appeared ignorant of CNKI.

The fans from within the academic circles were outraged at his ignorance, raising doubts over his academic credentials. One fan commented:” how comes a postdoctoral student is ignorant of an essential tool every college students almost use daily.” A netizen pulled an article authored by Zhai Tianlin and run a plagiarism test through CNKI, which reported a startling 40% similarity with the article of an obscure lecturer in southern China, indicating an almost certainty that Zhai has plagiarized the work of this lecturer.

Amid the uproar generated by the actor’s dubious academic credentials, Beijing Film Academy dragged its foot in responding, releasing a belated announcement promising to investigate into this incident. Angered by the bureaucratic foot-dragging, members of the Chinese online community began to dig deeper, revealing another mischief involving none other than the academy’s director.

The director of Beijing Film Academy, Zhang Hui, whose spouse is his former student, a young actress thirty years younger than him. But much of the online speculation revolved around the source of funding for a movie in which he co-stars with his wife. Several heavyweight actresses have appeared in supporting roles, but a movie promotion campaign portrayed these actresses as in the leading roles, an apparent attempt to capitalize on their fame, but to no avail. The movie is an unmitigated box-office flop. According to the data released by Maoyan, the movie grossed only 1 million yuan at the box office, recouping a fraction of its total investment.

The source of the funding for the movie may remain a mystery, but the reputation of Beijing Film is in tatters. One comment on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform, alleged that the movie was made with the sole aim of boosting the budding acting career of the director’s young wife. If it’s the case, the plan surely backfired. With rumours and mockery swirling around the movie, it would take a miracle to resuscitate her career.

These scandals are bound to have far-reaching consequences for Chinese higher education institutions. A Weibo user claimed that after the scandals spread overseas, A overseas university put on hold his admission to its graduate program, pending further review, possibly out of the concern for the authenticity of his academic record.

Chinese higher education institutions were remodelled on the Soviet system after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which aimed to assert the party’s leading role in Chinese Universities. After the opening up of China at the end of the seventies, the Chinese Universities underwent a series of reforms which granted universities with greater autonomy as parts of the efforts to transform several leading Chinese Universities into world-class institutions on a part with the likes of Oxford and Harvard.

But inside China’s universities, party functionaries, not academics, are responsible for the running of academic systems. Lack of proper academic background means these administrators often rely on indexes, like the number of publications a scholar or a department churning out annually, to serve as academic performance indicators. Under the pressure for more publications, almost all Chinese universities require doctoral students to publish several articles in C-list journals, a group of China’s most reputable academic publications, before securing academic approval for graduation. 

But under Chinese press regulation, legally publishing a journal requires applying for a serial number which is sparingly issued. Restriction on the number of academic publications creates a shortage of spots for doctoral papers. Even after accepted, some papers have to wait years before seeing the print. Frustrated, some doctoral students resort to illegal and corrupt ways to ensure timely publication for their work. On Taobao, the most popular e-commerce platform on which physical goods and services are on offer, a search term” C-list Journals” brought up several vendors whose expertise including writing C-list journal worthy papers and guaranteeing time and spots for paper’s publication. So in theory, you could buy your way to a doctoral degree with minimal efforts. 

A wealthy and influential actor in possession of a dubious doctoral degree makes a ideal target for scholars to vent their anger and frustration, while the underlying cause of their misery was left untouched. Unless Chinese universities wake up to the real problem hindering its growth, the dream to build world-class universities probably will never materialize.

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