A Chinese student is greeted by a relative after taking the annual college entrance examinations in Beijing, June 8, 2010. Each year, about over 10 million high school seniors across China take the "gaokao."
A Chinese student is greeted by a relative after taking the annual college entrance examinations in Beijing, June 8, 2010. Each year, about over 10 million high school seniors across China take the "gaokao."

WASHINGTON - A Chinese film and television star who is suspected of faking his doctoral dissertation has publicly apologized and left his doctoral program at Peking University.

Zhai Tianlin issued a statement of remorse on his studio's social-media Weibo account Thursday as an investigation looked into online allegations that he plagiarized at least part of his doctoral thesis.

A blogger dug into Zhai's academic work and found that more than 50 percent of a paper Zhai published about White Deer Plain, a famous Chinese novel, appeared similar to a paper published by a professor in Anhui province more than 10 years ago, according to the Chinese web portal Sina.

College entrance test reviewed

Another part of his academic record — his score on China's national gaokao college entrance examination — has also come under scrutiny.

Zhai's popularity as an actor was enhanced by his strong academic record before the controversy erupted.That image fell apart quickly after online allegations of cheating. Ridicule of the actor's alleged plagiarism trended at the top of Weibo.

Beijing Film Academy, where he studied, and the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, where he was admitted as a postdoctoral scholar, said they were investigating Zhai's alleged thesis fraud. The controversy started last Aug. 26 when during a live webcast, Zhai was asked if his dissertation could be found on the academic database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CKNI). When Zhai responded, "What is CNKI?" suspicions were aroused online. That criticism and ridicule of the alleged plagiarism has grown recently. 

Actor posts acceptance letter

On Jan. 31, the actor posted on his Weibo account a letter from Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, showing his acceptance as a postdoctoral fellow. A few days later, after he played an anti-counterfeiting police officer in a sketch on a variety program, Zhai became the target of public criticism and efforts to expose him ramped up.

In his apology letter, Zhai, who also goes by Ronald Zhai, said he deeply regretted any wrongdoing and that vanity and wishful thinking made him lose his head. He said he was officially leaving the postdoctoral program.

However, Zhai did not admit to plagiarism.

While investigations from the Film Academy and the Guanghua School are not finished, netizens appear to have concluded that Zhai plagiarized his paper.

Professor He Weifang, a professor at the School of Law of Peking University, said it was critical that Zhai, the Film Academy and the Guanghua School produce convincing evidence to dispute or confirm plagiarism as soon as possible.

"The so-called court of public opinion convictions are very common in the internet age," He said, even if the suspicions are not based on real crimes. "It's just that everyone pays particular attention to it. This includes truths and falsehoods in industrial products, food safety and other areas."

He said it is "very important and necessary for us to pay attention to these issues. This includes academia. If you can fake things in academia, then really anything else in this country can be faked."  He added that the fact that netizens are questioning alleged fakery "is a very good thing."

'Failure of society'

Li Datong, a former reporter for the China Youth Daily and founding editor of the paper's Freezing Point weekly, said finding out that Zhai falsified his dissertation would not be unusual and reflects "a failure of society."

"Fraud is already mass-scale, the whole society is degenerate, and there is no moral bottom line, which is nothing new," Li said. "Officials are of course like this: Whoever is powerful will have a higher degree. So what comes out is if you can cheat, why can't I?"

Brian Kopczynski of the Mandarin Services translated and contributed to this article.