Floating Chinese Officials: A History of Badly Doctored Photos

The latest incident involves a photo of officials inspecting a road

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Earlier this week, a bored resident of China's Huili county visited the local government's website on a lark and discovered something shocking: A lead story about a highway project in the countryside featured a photo (above) of three local officials hovering above an upgraded road, in what The Guardian would later call "one of the worst-doctored photographs in internet history." After the resident highlighted the blatant "Photoshop job" on a web forum, the county government yanked the photo and issued an apology, explaining that the photographer--a government employee who was now being disciplined--hadn't liked the look of his actual photos and decided to superimpose the officials on a different background instead, according to China Daily.

The government has posted one of the original photos, below, on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo (it's true that the road doesn't look as nice in this one). Chinese "netizens," meanwhile, have had a field day with the image, depicting the officials landing on the moon, hanging out with dinosaurs, and inspecting the road with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

But lest we think this is an isolated incident, it's worth pointing out that this isn't the first time Chinese officials have gotten in trouble for doctored photos. In 2006, hundreds of newspapers ran an award-winning photograph showing antelope galloping under a high-speed train in Tibet, helping diffuse concerns from environmentalists that China's new $4 billion Qinghai-Xizang railway would endanger the chiru, an endangered antelope species. Almost two years later, however, people started raising suspicions about the image when the photo appeared in Beijing's subway system (netizens wondered, for example, how the antelope could have been so calm). The photographer, Liu Weiqing, eventually admitted that he'd used Photoshop to stitch two photos together and resigned from the Daqing Evening News, as did his editor. Several government news outlets, meanwhile, apologized for running the photo, but it was never clear whether authorities had pressured Liu to doctor the image in an effort to win support for the rail project, according to The Wall Street Journal. Here's the image, from the EastSouthWestNorth blog:

Only a year before the antelope scandal, forestry officials in northern Shaanxi province published photos from a local farmer of a tiger in a forest as part of a campaign to boost tourism and establish a wildlife reserve for the endangered South China tiger, which the photos suggested still existed. But local media and web experts were skeptical about the image, and the photos were eventually exposed as fake when found an old tiger picture the farmer had used to produce his photos and a wooden model of a tiger claw that he'd used to produce a paw print on snow, according to Xinhua. The farmer, who received a cash award from the officials, was eventually jailed, and the Shaanxi province government fired 13 local officials implicated in the incident. Here's one of the photos, courtesy of Xinhua:

China, of course, isn't the only country where these types of incidents occur (remember the story about Iran manipulating images of its missile launch in 2008?). But it's interesting that all three incidents share a number of characteristics. They all involve relatively low-profile issues (the construction of a road or rail system, the survival of a rare tiger), officials relying on evidence provided by photographers to get their messages across, and online activists helping to ferret out the truth. In most cases the photographer took the fall, though in the South China incident officials were also punished.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.