Celebrity Status: A Warrant For Easy Doctorate Degrees?

It takes several years for the smartest minds around the world to get a PhD degree in the subjects they excel in. But for some, their PhD studies seem to be way too easy.

Chinese actor Zhai Tianlin became the most recent ‘prize taker’ as he set himself on fire over his PhD and Post Doc credentials. Often pictured as a ‘handsome looking academia talent’, Zhai showed his inability to understand basic academia knowledge in his live-streaming sessions with his fans earlier last year.

Zhai Tianlin in receiving his doctorate degree (source: weibo)

The 31-year-old posted his admission letter to Peking University, one of China’s top universities, earlier in January. However, social media users discovered that Zhai did not publish much of his academic work on mainstream academic journals. And within the two essays that Zhai published, one of which is now under fire for plagiarizing the work from professor Huang Lihua dated back in 2006.

While Zhai’s management company denied these allegations, universities involved in the alleged misconduct are starting to investigate the matter. Zhai entered Beijing Film Academy’s Performing Arts School in 2006 and graduated in 2014 after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. While devoting the majority of his time to acting, it is uncertain how Zhai managed to pass all the required courses and complete his graduation thesis within the given time frame.

Zhai intended to picture himself as the most knowledgeable actor in China. However, with the ongoing investigations on his academic conduct, Zhai will no longer enjoy the privilege of calling himself the ‘most educated celebrity’ in the country. It remains uncertain whether the current incident will have any significant negative impact on Zhai’s acting career. However, it is certain that this kind of attention is not what Zhai and his management company had intended.

Zhai’s case was clearly not the first time that celebrities got into trouble because of their questionable academic credentials. China Daily revealed a series of Chinese entertainment celebrities who had questionable academic credentials back in 2015. And five years prior to that, Guangzhou Daily discovered several artists using fake academic credentials to attain recognition in the field as well. It is a sad reality, forging academic credentials is a common practice that has existed in celebrity circles in China for many years.

This also makes you wonder, why would a successful actor need an academic degree? It is evident that getting a PhD degree in music does not guarantee one’s albums to become the best selling ones on the market. Neither would a 4.0 GPA ensure an Oscar or a Grammy nomination. Looking at some of the top musicians in the world nowadays: Drake, Cardi B, and Ariana Grande. Neither of them has a university degree, but it does not matter. People love their music, and that is already a form of recognition that most of us will not be able to achieve.

The thirst for academic credentials reveal the unfortunate nature of the low-trust society dilemma that the Chinese society is facing. In absence of copyright protection, professional ethics, and transparent access to information, a large portion of people in the Chinese society turn their trust to academic institutions, and blindly believe in diplomas and academic achievements. They started to take on an assumption that makes no sense: If a person excels at school, he or she must be a perfect candidate for whatever he or she does. And that is definitely just an unsubstantiated argument. In this case, acting is more of an ability, a craftsmanship, rather than a discipline.

The morbid pursuit of academic credentials reveal a kind of laziness. Instead of finding the artists that could produce the best movie, show or music, the public dive into the uncertainty of popularity. The main task of Chinese celebrities and their management companies shifted into getting more and more popular, rather than becoming better at their artistic skills. The irrational myth of academic credentials became the primary factor for them to try to get a cover: They want their fame, so it comes to bragging about their schools, even if they never went there.

In contrast to the west, which usually has an honorary degree system for those with superb achievements in non-academic related fields, Chinese universities are yet to develop such paths to confer recognition to artists. It leaves the quest of academic degrees harder for Chinese celebrities: They are not so popular in places outside of China, or Chinese speaking countries. Yet in China, there is no open opportunity for them to get recognition from the universities at all.

They then face two options: Either they take the university entrance exams, just like the graduating high school students, or they could try to fake it until they get caught. With these two options, it really is a no-brainer to them. Remember, China remains a low-trust society. The cost of breaking the public’s trust may not be that high. Among celebrities that have been exposed by media reports, many are still active in the Chinese entertainment industry.

Forging degrees thus became a strategy that yielded high benefit with little cost. Zhai enjoyed his title as the most educated celebrity in China for a good couple of years before his case came to the public’s attention. Zhai’s strategies might have made him millions of yuan. And if worst comes to worst for the actor, a revocation of his degrees would not affect the money he has made in previous years.

There isn’t a good solution to this problem at the moment: Fans are worshipping these academia fantasies and believe in their idols’ superb abilities to balance studies and acting as well as attending commercial events. Celebrities should not need a degree to become more recognized. They need more time to develop their talent, and progress in their craftsmanship instead of becoming the contestants in these pointless popularity contests.

Featured photo credit to weibo