It Wasn’t Me: Professor Says Rags-to-Riches Story Is Fake News

2018-01-11 11:11:22

For 20 years, a Peking University professor has been struggling to cast off the heroic role imposed on him by a local government.

After An Jinpeng won a gold medal at the 1997 International Mathematical Olympiad, spurious inspirational stories about him began to circulate in print and online. The stories described An — now a mathematics professor at Peking University, one of China’s top educational institutions — as a boy from an impoverished family who strived for excellence so he could repay his mother’s hard work.

Two decades later, media outlets are still spreading the touching tales, portraying An in the style of Lei Feng, a soldier who became an almost mythical figure in the Mao era for his hard work and willingness to help others. A social media account affiliated with state news agency Xinhua posted An’s supposed story on Christmas Eve 2017.

But An has repeatedly denied the stories as fabrications. “It’s so ridiculous,” he said in a recent interview with The Intellectual, an account on social media network WeChat that focuses on science and humanism.

Most of the stories are based on a series of articles written by Zhang Youde, a former deputy cultural bureau chief of the district in Tianjin where An is from. After An won the math olympiad medal, Zhang and other officials visited his family. “I thought they wanted to ask things about the competition and the gold medal, but instead they asked my parents how poor we were, and tried to steer the conversation to the topic of poverty,” An told The Intellectual.

After the visit, Zhang wrote several articles about An, mostly in the first person: In one, An was the only student at his high school who could not afford to buy even the vegetable dishes in the cafeteria, while another said An’s father had precancerous colon polyps.

“[Zhang] wrote that my father had cancer, but my father never had cancer — he was always healthy,” An said in the interview. Another article mentioned An’s marriage, but both the name of his wife and the date of their marriage were incorrect.

Despite An’s clarification attempts over the years — including an explanation published on his personal blog in 2006 — the stories are still in circulation. On Thursday, Sixth Tone tried to reach Zhang, but an employee at the Wuqing District cultural bureau said he had retired years ago. “If the articles are fabricated, I would like to apologize,” she said, but requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to media about the issue.

An said the articles are a source of embarrassment because they give people false impressions of him. Schools around the country have invited him to give inspirational speeches, strangers have contacted him for financial aid, and authorities have used his story as reading material on exams.

Yet An knows why the stories are popular. “Considering the social context back then, I understand the phenomenon. Even now, I can still understand it because [Zhang] wrote in such a touching way,” he told The Intellectual. “The story emphasizes hard work and repaying one’s family, which easily strikes a chord with readers.”

Similar fabrications continue to pop up across social media. In December, a local government in eastern China’s Shandong province made a false announcement that a 14-year-old student had signed a “contract” with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his talent in computer programming. MIT later denied the news.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: A boy reads a book in his school dorm room in Beijing, May 27, 2015. VCG)