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College scandal a cautionary tale for crazy rich Chinese

Inkstone logo Inkstone 10/5/2019
a woman sitting at a table © Facebook/Yusi Zhao

"Those more outstanding than you also work harder."

This is a trendy aspirational phrase in China in the digital era, meant to remind people who do not come from well-to-do families that the only way they can catch up is by working hard.

Had the Stanford University admissions scandal involving, among others, sophomore Zhao "Molly" Yusi not made headlines, she would still be looked up to as living testimony of how diligence alone pays off in the end.

But last week, the fairy tale unraveled.

It turned out that Zhao's "hard work" combined with $6.5 million that her parents paid to college consultant William "Rick" Singer, the largest such payment that has come to light, probably got her into Stanford.

US federal prosecutors have accused Singer of falsely packaging Zhao as a competitive sailor.

In March, Stanford expelled Zhao.

Court filings note that Singer's American clients paid between $15,000 and $400,000 to get their children into prestigious universities. The only two families known to have paid more than $1 million dollars were Chinese.

As the news broke, Chinese internet users ruthlessly mocked the Zhao family. The stereotype of Chinese "new money" being "crazy rich" yet easily deceived was once again reinforced.

While there are a sizeable number of wealthy Chinese youth attending top-tier universities abroad and the Zhao family is not the only one involved in the recent scandal, it has attracted the most vitriol on social media.

Many took issue with a 90-minute video Zhao made in 2017 after she was admitted to Stanford, a supposedly inspirational talk or, as some Chinese term discourse of this sort, "toxic chicken soup."

"Others might not recognize you can do it but you have to prove to them you can with your own hard work and actions," she said in the video. She also said, "Some people think, 'Did you get into Stanford because your family is rich?' No, the admissions officers basically do not know who you are."

Zhao insisted that her admission to Stanford was purely the result of "burying her head and studying hard," as the Chinese phrase goes, and that she had to give up horse riding to focus on school work.

Not surprisingly, those assertions have been at the center of the internet backlash.

To some extent, the scandal also reflects privileged Chinese people's belief that there is nothing money can't buy.

In today's pragmatic and consumerist Chinese society, wealth is almost the only standard by which success is measured and many people dream of making a fortune.

On closer scrutiny, though, the roots of many successful people's wealth are questionable.

Forbes estimates that pharmaceutical mogul Zhao Tao, Zhao Yusi's father, has a net worth of $1.8 billion. His family's wealth was accumulated through marketing traditional Chinese medicine and health supplements.

In 2002, Chinese prosecutors found that Zhao Yusi's grandfather, a former doctor and co-founder of the company, had paid a bribe of $10,000 to a senior food and drug administration official to get his products approved.

The once aspirational narrative now resembles a cautionary tale.

Successful people, who are wont to present themselves as talented and hardworking while effacing the unfair advantages they enjoy, should remember that not presenting the facts honestly could backfire badly.

Also, there is another well-known Chinese saying: "keep quiet and make your fortune." Obviously, the Zhaos didn't quite follow that dictum.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a nonfiction writer and broadcast journalist

This story originally appeared on Inkstone, a daily multimedia digest of China-focused news and features.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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