Two years ago, a local newspaper in Lihong Town, Sichuan Province printed a photograph of three rather obscure government officials standing on a road. Except, they weren't really standing: as gleeful observers pointed out, the officials actually appeared to be levitating on the ground, evidence that the image had been doctored. Badly. The local Lihong government apologized the next day, but it was too late: the photo-shopped image exploded into a full-fledged meme, volleying around China (and the world).
You'd think a high-profile bust would send a message to journalists throughout China that, in this day of eagle-eyed critics, trying to use a doctored image is a bad idea. Alas, apparently not. Last December, Xinhua included a doctored image of current Premier Li Keqiang in this slideshow, which it subsequently removed upon discovery. (According to Shanghaiist, China's censors even nixed discussion of the image online, unsurprising since the subject in question is the country's second-most powerful official).
And now, circling back to the earlier theme of "random Party cadres in the field", comes this doozy of a photoshopped image dug up again by Shanghaiist, again from the wilds of rural Sichuan. Rather than include people into an image (that weren't there already), the photo editor in question tried to erase people out. But, given the shadows present, didn't exactly succeed.
So why does this sort of thing happen?
First, it's not a coincidence that each of the three photos profiled Communist Party officials. Flattering images of government officials, often showing them mingling among smiling ordinary folk, tend to feature heavily in mainstream Chinese media. It's safe to say that there isn't a whole lot going on in rural Sichuan -- at least not the sort of stories Chinese journalists are allowed to report -- so why not go back to an old standby? And if the official hasn't been seen in public recently (perhaps owing to a spot of vacation-style treatment), well, you got to be a little creative.
Secondly, the notion of a discerning readership remains fairly new in China, where web forums and microblogs have only emerged in the past handful of years. Editors there may still be unused to the idea that readers will notice their mistakes, particularly ones as obvious as bad photo doctoring, and thus find it easier to go through the motions.
No country's media is completely free from malfeasance, least of all the United States. But this recurrence of badly doctored photographs seems unique to China, reflecting an evolving media culture in which a doddering propaganda machine is encountering an increasingly vigilant corps of web-savvy news readers.
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Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at the Asia Society and a former contributing writer for The Atlantic.