Categories FactCheck & Views

Publish Date (HKT) 2021-08-12

Behind fact-checking: Jeon Jihee’s ‘appearance change’ controversy

Though the Tokyo Olympic Games have ended, it is still a hot topic in the public arena. Jeon Jihee (Korean: 전지희; Chinese: 田志希), a naturalized female South Korean table tennis player and a former Chinese, has drawn much attention among netizens, because of her “appearance change” rather than her performance in the Olympics.

Jeon was born in 1992 as Tian Minwei (Chinese: 田旻煒) in Langfang city, Hebei province in central China. She became a naturalized South Korean tennis player and joined the POSCO Energy (a South Korean steel-making company) Women’s Table Tennis Team in 2011. She ranked 14th in the world and represented South Korea in the events of women’s singles, women’s team and mixed doubles at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

However, her “appearance change” has been discussed with heat, sometimes venom, on the internet. A Facebook post published Aug. 8, 2021 includes a comparison of Jeon’s “before and after photos” purporting to be Jeon’s face ten years ago and present. A comment on the Facebook post says that environment nurtures one’s well-being and Jeon has become so stunning after leaving China. Other comments claim the people in the photos are not the same person but might only have the same name. As of the issuance of this article, the post had been shared 17 times, and had received 524 likes or reactions.

Screenshots of the Facebook post and its comments.

To verify whether the people in the collage are the same person, HKBU FactCheck Service further probed into it.

Is the person in the photos Jeon Jihee?

A keyword search on the official website of International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) found only one female table tennis athlete named Jeon Jihee, born in 1992. A further keyword search on the ranking page of the official website of World Table Tennis (WTT) also found only one athlete named Jeon Jihee. Her biography page shows that she was born in Langfang, China and moved to the South Korea at the age of 16.

Screenshot of Jeon Jihee’s biography page on ITTF website.

A reverse image search on Google also found the origin of the photos. The photo purporting to show Jeon ten years ago was originally published in the news article dated Aug. 12, 2016 by Newsis, a privately owned news agency in South Korea. The photo shows Jeon playing in the first-round match between South Korea and Romania in the women’s team table tennis event during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Comparison of Jeon’s photo taken “ten years ago” (left) and the photo attached in the Newsis article (right).

According to the 2-minute 20-second mark of the video recording of the competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it could be confirmed that the athlete in the video is Jeon Jihee as the name shown on her uniform and the subtitle. The hair style and uniform of the female in this video footage correspond to the ones in the Facebook photo which was purportedly taken ten years ago. Thus, the person in the Facebook post is Jeon Jihee and the photo was taken five years ago. At that time, she has been a naturalized Korean player.

Screenshot of the video recording of the match between South Korea and Romania during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

HKBU FactCheck Service ran a keyword search on Weibo and found the “after photo” was originally published in a Weibo post dated July 28, 2021 by World Table Tennis (WTT, the commercial and events company of ITTF). The photo in the post shows a scene during quarterfinals of women’s singles table tennis event at 2021 Tokyo Olympics. According to the official information, the player in the scene is Jeon Jihee. The female in the purported “before and after photos,” thus, is the same person—Jeon Jihee.

Comparison of Jeon’s photo reportedly taken “ten years later” in the Facebook post and the photo in the WTT Weibo post.

In response to the controversy, Jeon has admitted on Weibo that she has undergone cosmetic surgery. According to her reply to the comments, she had performed several types of cosmetic surgery, including double eyelid, Local Dynamic Micro-massage (LDM, an anti-aging skin treatment), and hairline tattooing. She also frequently shared information about skin care and cosmetic surgery on Weibo. That might explain why Jeon’s appearance has changed to some extent.

Screenshots of Jeon’s Weibo posts and comments about cosmetic surgery and skin care.

Based on the above findings, we could have concluded that the person in the image is Jeon herself.

Framing and manipulation behind the message

However, we also discovered that the photos discussed in the Facebook post are deliberately selected to spin the controversy.

First of all, the author intentionally selected a photo of Jeon appearing to be old due to her slightly distorted facial expression and strained facial muscles during the competition. The photo was chosen to represent her “ten years ago.” It is found, however, the photo was taken in 2016 Rio Olympics, 5 years ago. Other photos taken at the Games do not show a significantly different appearance of Jeon from now.

The photos of Jeon taken during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

By the same token, a photo of Jeon with a normal facial expression was also selected on purpose to spin a sharp contrast between then and now. Moreover, WTT also posted some other photos of Jeon in Tokyo Olympics on Weibo, which also show her expression with strained facial muscles due to the fierce competition. Such photos, however, were not selected to represent her in “ten years later.”

Other photos of Jeon published on Weibo by WTT.

Thus, the Facebook post selected the collage on purpose to frame and spin Jeon’s “appearance change,” and intentionally create a hot topic on internet.

The post also highlights that Jeon’s face “has significantly changed” after she became a naturalized Korean citizen, purposely emphasize the difference between China and Korea. In fact, both photos were taken after she moved to Korea. The post, therefore, is misleading.

Moreover, as the No.1 table tennis player in South Korea, the 14th ranked player in the world and a top 8 player in the women’s singles events at the Tokyo Olympics, Jeon’s outstanding performance should be the focus of coverage, instead of exaggerating her “appearance change” and turning it into a public spectacle.

That is why we decided to share our observations rather than to publish a fact check.