For many Fudan University alumni, last week was like riding an emotional roller coaster: from pride, to shock, to disbelief, to disappointment, to shame and to anger. As one of China’s most prestigious institutions of higher education most known for its School of Journalism, the Shanghai-based university turned a joyful headline-grabbing celebration of its 110th anniversary into a self-inflicted PR disaster that nearly ruined its hard-won reputation as “the best university on the southern bank of the Yangtze River”.
It all started with a promotional video that the university proudly unveiled on May 27. At first glance, the 5 minute video clip is imbued with refreshing novelty in both its core message and storytelling techniques. In stark contrast to similar efforts by other top Chinese universities, which invariably fall into the cliché of shopping-listing “achievements” and campus attractions, the Fudan video adopts the perspective of an individual graduate, one of China’s very few female commercial flight test engineers, and tells a story of empowerment through an enlightening journey of education at Fudan. In a somewhat quirky way, the video shows her sauntering on the Fudan campus wearing blue full-body uniform and a clumsy pilot helmet that covers her entire face. With that helmet on, she attends lectures of graceful, silver-haired Fudan professors, visits laboratories full of serious researchers, reads at libraries stacked by aging volumes of classics, and plays Taiji with fellow students on a lush meadow. At the end, she finally takes off the helmet and reveals her young, beautiful face. The onscreen text then simply says “Le Yafei, class of 2009, now a flight test engineer of COMAC.” Throughout the video, the protagonist narrates her story in decent English, against a sublime background music that matches seamlessly with the theme of a soul soaring up high through knowledge and enlightenment.
Viewed on its own, the video so completely transcends the whole genre of boring Chinese college promotional videos that it deserves a stand ovation. It redefines a university’s success as the incubator of creative, truth-seeking individuals, rather than a factory producing wealthy alumni, fancy laboratories or high rise buildings. Its strive for novelty and memorability in form also speaks to the ambition to connect with a real, global audience, rather than poker-faced bureaucrats seeking a mere visualization of their own achievements.
All of the above only makes the sudden reversal of events even more pathetic.
Almost as soon as the launch of the video, people noticed its impeccable similarity with the University of Tokyo’s 2014 promotional video “Explorer“, which features female astronaut Naoko Yamazaki navigating the campus wearing her spacesuit. She goes through similar on-campus scenes: libraries, laboratories and classrooms, and at the end of the video, takes off her helmet when the text says “Naoko Yamazaki, class of 1993, astronaut”. More embarrassingly, people found out that the goose bump raising background music of the Fudan video was simply borrowed from the original soundtrack of the award-winning Hollywood movie, Gravity.
For the Fudan alumni who had been in a festive mood in the running up to their alma mater’s birthday, the brazen plagiarism of the video was a profound disappointment. Many of them occupy prominent positions in China’s media establishment, which makes their rage particularly audible. One of them, who had been a Weibo royalty, was so hurt that he decided to suspend microblogging indefinitely. The fact that Fudan chose to copy from a Japanese university only makes it even more insulting for some. Screenshots of Japanese media reports of the incident quickly spread on the Chinese web sphere as a painful reminder of the humiliation. Angry netizens started to refer to Fudan University as “Fuzhi (copy) University.”
In no time, media attention turned to the man behind the promotional video: The director of Fudan University’s news center, Mr. Teng Yudong, who had a PhD in journalism. Interestingly, the individual depicted by media reports turned out to be a complex and authentic human being that vividly represents the multiple contradictions of contemporary China. In what seemed like an unpublished in-depth piece that probed into the making of the video, Teng came off as an over-ambitious, over-confident figure eager to transform the university’s publicity norms. He was widely credited to have reinvented the university’s campus newspaper “The Fudan Youth” into a semi-serious journalistic venture with original, in-depth reporting of all sorts. He was also known for his intolerance of mediocrity and for setting high benchmarks for his subordinates, often using others’ work as “reference points.” Failing to reach those bars set by him would result in criticism and scold. It was in this atmosphere of “aiming high” that the University of Tokyo’s “Explorer” caught his attention and imagination. He had always wanted to tell the story of alumnus Le Yafei, whose involvement in China’s attempt of making its own commercial airliners as a female flight tester had already made headlines in major party newspapers since 2012. He memorably told his colleagues that “this is a story that should not be wasted, and should be packaged in a completely different way.” It fitted his taste of storytelling as a college propaganda director: the stories of alumni contributions to advancing the national goals of China. So his theme for the video was subtly different from its U-Tokyo counterpart from the outset: Yes, it celebrates individuals, but not as who they are. They are celebrated for their dedication to greater collective objectives. When you look at it through this lens, you better understand his alleged response to early warnings of plagiarism from his own team: “Don’t shy away from being similar. Try to outdo them!”
That attitude, a mixture of noble ambition and shocking ignorance, brought him some sympathy and much ridicule in the Chinese web sphere. The most vocal sympathetic voice came from The Paper, the Shanghai-based digital media that is considered China’s Huffington Post. The outlet not only carried an exclusive interview with Teng on May 29, where he apologized for the video but insisted that the core story had been original, but also allowed the reporter, a Fudan alumna herself, to come up with a first-person account of that interview. The account later turned into a major controversy that further complicated the incident. As it turned out, the journalist not only did not care to conceal her full sympathy with Teng (describing him as being treated too harshly by online opinion for trying to be innovative), but went so far as to allow her interviewee to edit her draft (incidentally cutting it by half) before she submitted it to her editor. While people debated her journalistic integrity, the focus of her sympathy, that Teng so desperately wanted to produce something “different”, and that borrowing others’ work was an important part of a learning process, speaks to the fundamental appeal of Teng’s philosophy of “copy, and then outdo”. Others compared his approach to a small time newspaper trying to adopt the narrative style of the Wall Street Journal.
But the majority of public opinion simply cannot stomach such valorization of the plagiarizer. They trashed the Paper News journalist and made crude jokes about anything associated with the University. Like many other major cyber events, the incident taps into some long existing anxiety of the Chinese society, which helps to amplify it to a magnitude that may seem disproportional to the original matter. That deeply-rooted anxiety about China’s lack of original thinking and creativity is like a drifting balloon filled with explosive gases in the web space. Whenever poked at by a burning cigarette or incense, it explodes and makes a huge noise. All of sudden, the internet is filled with all-to-familiar articles telling you “why China cannot produce a Steve Jobs” or “What’s wrong with China’s education system.”
We don’t know exactly why the Jobs and the Gates and the Zuckerbergs don’t roam the land of the central kingdom. But one thing is clear: Mr. Teng is probably going to lose his job. On May 29, Fudan University quietly took down “To My Light” from official channels and replaced it with a bland, shoddy and tedious 13-minute alternative full of footages of cadres making speeches. So much for noble plagiarism and storytelling ambitions. Let’s fall back to the safe and assuring realm of boredom.