“[But] instead of saying, ‘Look, I’m feeling overwhelmed, can you give me some pointers?’, she just started making things up, ripping off other papers.”
The Olympic fabrication appears to have started on July 27, hours before Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony in London.
Editors noticed that several paragraphs of one story appeared to have been lifted verbatim from a piece written by the Guardian’s Beijing correspondent.
“The standard of English suddenly read like a native speaker,” the newsroom source said.
But Ms Zhao continued to send dispatches from London and apparently turned her sights to The Daily Telegraph’s comment pages where Mr Johnson had published a piece titled: “Here’s 20 jolly good reasons to feel cheerful about the Games.”
“There are semi-naked women in Horse Guards,” began Mr Johnson’s article.
That line was omitted from the Global Times “exclusive” but Mr Johnson was quoted as having told the newspaper: “The Tube has performed pretty well so far, buses are running more or less to time and people are hospitable.”
Almost identical lines appeared in Mr Johnson’s Telegraph column.
The offending Global Times story – which also referred to London’s “famed Victor Park” – was removed from the newspaper’s site on Wednesday evening.
The Global Times source said Ms Zhao had in fact met Mr Johnson but, unusually, had failed to get him to talk.
“She went to some event with Boris where there were 20-30 Chinese journalists. He did his speech and she exchanged a couple of sentences with him after but didn’t actually get any quotes and [so she] stole them from the Telegraph article,” said the source.
“There were questions raised within the office. ‘Did you really get this quote?'” the source added. “Her words were Google-ed and they came up with the Telegraph article.”
The Beijing Cream blog reported that doubts continued to grow about the veracity of Ms Zhao’s reporting after she quoted an “Indian undergraduate” called Jaime Gornsztejn and a “supermarket employee” named David Beard.
But Ms Zhao’s cover was finally blown after editors in Beijing received a story on “Olympic pin collecting”, that had been “almost entirely” copied from London’s Evening Standard.
“She got told not to do any more stories,” the source said.
“When she flew back she was up before a disciplinary committee that decided to fire her. Everybody was pretty shocked because it was a big opportunity for her.”
Mr Johnson himself is no stranger to making up quotes. After graduating in 1987, he became a trainee reporter with The Times newspaper, but was sacked within a year for falsifying a quotation from his godfather Sir Colin Lucas. He later described the incident as his “biggest cock-up”.