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From superstars to public scrutiny: Asian stars who suffers from academic controversies and “fake degree” allegations

The importance of education and credentials in Asia leads to many cases of “academic controversies” among Asian celebrities. 

Recently, Chinese netizens can’t stop discussing the highly popular singer-actor Jackson Yee, alongside two other stars, who were accused of receiving “special favors” to get into the National Theater of China, taking up precious positions without having to go through tough examinations like other applicants. 

The controversies caused Jackson Yee to lose thousands of fans and numerous CF deals within just a week, and from his once ideal image, the singer-actor has now become the receiving end of public ire. Should the allegations against him be true, however, many netizens believe that his fall from grace is a deserving punishment, as there have been many previous cases, both in and outside of China, of celebrities using their wealth and power to get special treatment in the academic realm. 

The price of academic favors and fake degrees

In 2021, Chinese actress Chen Hao was named a Professor at China’s Central Academy of Drama. However, instead of receiving praise for such a title, the actress was showered in suspicions stemming from Chinese netizens and the media. In particular, they pointed out the unremarkable academic achievements of Chen Hao, and the fact that her master thesis was detected to have 22.75% of repeated contents with previously published papers – way higher than the passing requisite. 

These suspicions were later cemented when China’s Central Academy of Drama removed the professor title from Chen Hao’s segment on their official website. The move has greatly impacted the image of Chen Hao, who was previously known for her high education and perfect record. 

However, Chen Hao was among the luckier ones, especially when compared to two other Chinese artists, Zhai Tianlin and Dong Zhuo. According to Sina, Zhai Tianlin was the first Chinese actor to have his degree terminated after he was found cheating during an examination in 2019, and eventually was banned from all broadcasting stations. Meanwhile, Dong Zhuo dug his own grave when he bragged about successfully cheating during the Chinese university entrance exam, and promptly disappeared from the entertainment industry. 

But academic controversies not only ruin Chinese artists, but also Kpop stars. Back in early 2019, Korean media reported that the nation’s Ministry of Education has officially terminated the degrees of Highlight members Yong Jun Hyung, Yoon Doo Joon, and Lee Gi Kwang; BtoB members Seo Eun Kwang and Yook Sung Jae; as well as singers Jang Hyun Seung and Choo Ga Yeol – who all attended Dongshin University. 

In the case of Choo Ga Yeol, he was also revealed to have been named a professor of the Music department, despite having lacking credentials. As a result, the singer lost both his university degree and professor title, and was fired from his teaching position. 

Later on, investigation revealed that starting from 2015, Dongshin University accepted hours of appearance on TV, music festivals, and other artistic activities as “class attendance”. In addition, they also awarded scholarships that were worth up to 53,000 USD to certain artists, without proper procedures. 

In October 2018, 2AM Jo Kwon and CNBlue Jung Yong Hwa also got their degree from Kyunghee University terminated for cheating. In particular, Jung Yong Hwa, alongside 2 other students, was accepted for a doctorate program despite not attending a required interview, while Jo Kwon was accused of not following exam regulations during his master studies. 

The subsequent “witch hunt” 

In China and Korea, where academic backgrounds are placed on an extremely high pedestal, getting fake credentials or using underhanded means to get degrees is a serious crime that can result in court sentences. These nations considered university degrees and higher education as ultimate means to compete in the labor force, and those with credentials can earn the admiration of others, as well as raise their social status and family’s reputation.  

Degrees and education level can be powerful tools for celebrities to gain respect and admiration from the public. Therefore, artists with humble academic backgrounds are likely to face prejudice and be made fun of by netizens, who claim that they enter the entertainment industry because they can’t study. 

China and South Korea are two of the countries with the most fierce and competitive university entrance exams in Asia. The competition becomes even more intense among university graduates who want to apply for good positions in the job market. 

Therefore, the outrage that explodes when cheating is exposed is understandable. Negative reactions from the public will be even more severe when the cheating behavior comes from celebrities, people who are often considered “privileged” compared to commoners. The competition, which already lacks fairness from the start, makes commoners even more sensitive when celebrities are given favorable conditions in their studies that benefit their careers. Chinese netizens criticizing Jackson Yee for taking a government job despite making a lot of money as a singer-actor partly reflects this mentality.

Cases of celebrities cheating on exams and studies have caused the public to be suspicious of their actual academic level. Many artists have been victims of hateful comments online as netizens accuse them of lying about their academic achievements. This also reflects a sad reality when degrees become weapons for a petty part of the public to throw hate at celebrities.

Recently, there were rumors that actress Park Eun Bin received preferential treatment, so she was accepted into the prestigious Sogang University of Korea. This allegation was made solely on the basis that her entrance exam scores were not released. Some netizens even fabricated stories that she was forced to drop out of school because she didn’t attend classes. 

Fortunately, the malicious rumors were quickly refuted by Park Eun Bin’s classmates. However, the fact that the rumors only began to spread after Park Eun Bin gained great popularity recently has raised questions about the real purpose of these negative reactions. 

Not long ago, after the success of “A Dream of Splendor”, Liu Yifei’s exam cheating allegations once again resurfaced. Since her debut until now, Liu Yifei has always kept the information related to her study in the US a secret. The public only knows that she has completed the equivalent of 7 courses in 5 years.

In addition, whether or not Liu Yifei entered the Beijing Film Academy as a student with American citizenship was also discussed. The controversy was so serious that the Beijing Education Commission had to give an official response. According to Sina, it was confirmed through the examination of records that Liu Yifei was eligible for admission as an international student. She also took all the tests and met the admission criteria.

Although many years have passed, the public still cannot forget what happened to Tablo, the leader of Epik High. In 2010, a group of anonymous netizens questioned Tablo’s remarkable academic record, which shows that he completed his undergraduate degree and earned a master’s degree from Stanford University in just 3 years. The accusation ignited outrage within the Korean public, which was still smoldering after a series of academic fraud scandals of senior leaders were exposed just a few years before.

The public demanded the truth from Tablo. Anger quickly turned into acts of harassment targeting Tablo, his family and his university. The series of terrifying events is likened to a witch hunt. Even after Stanford University had spoken up, criticism from the Korean public did not stop. 

It was not until August 2011, after Tablo seeked legal help, that he was protected and vindicated. What he didn’t expect, however, was that the person behind the witch hunt targeting him was an ordinary middle-aged man.

The father of two successful daughters targeted Tablo because he felt offended and jealous of Tablo’s perfect record at Stanford University. The accusation against Tablo was not made for justice at all. It was merely a hateful attack, with serious mental damage.

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