Chinese officials produce a lot of badly forged photos, but this might be the worst

October 31, 2013

Local Chinese officials are notorious for releasing photos that have been obviously and crudely altered to portray public relations stunts that never actually happened. The Guardian's China-based Tania Branigan has discovered the latest, and possibly greatest, of these photoshop failures. A group of officials in Ningguo, a Wichita-sized city in the eastern province of Anhui, recently released this photo. Soak it in:


A Chinese government office released this photo, which purportedly shows officials meeting with a local resident. (Ningguo Civil Affairs Department)

Here's what the photo is supposed to show: Some of Ningguo's top officials, including Vice-Mayor Wang Hun at right, meeting with a local elderly woman, to demonstrate their filial piety and deep care for their constituent's well-being.

Here's what the photo actually shows: Local and provincial Chinese officials have developed a reputation in recent years for horribly photoshopped publicity photos. This one is especially egregious: note the vice mayor's strangely disappearing legs, the elderly woman who appears 6 inches tall, the fact that none of the officials seem to know what to do with their arms. OK, that last point isn't related to photoshop, but the point is that this is seeping with awkwardness.

Inevitably, of course, these photos end up flying around Chinese social media, where they are roundly mocked, until they up in Western press accounts like the one you are currently reading. That's been happening with increasing frequency. In June 2011, for example, officials at the Huili county government in southwestern Sichuan province had the poor judgment to release this photo, purportedly showing them inspecting a new road:

Three officials from Sichuan appear to be floating above the ground in this doctored image from June 26, 2011 (Huili County Government)
Three officials from Sichuan appear to be floating above the ground in this doctored image from June 2011 (Huili County Government)

Chinese Web users seized on the obvious forgery, photoshopping up their own spoofs to have a few laughs and to embarrass the officials, both of which are frequent pursuits on the country's popular social media platforms.

This April, when yet another horrendously faked photo of party officials flew around the Web, The Atlantic's Matt Schiavenza argued that the trend was a product of the fact that official state media are still figuring out that the world has changed. After decades of being free to publish whatever they like with little scrutiny and even less risk of backlash, the "doddering propaganda machine" hasn't learned that it can no longer be quite so lazy. He points to this photo, from 2004, which is perhaps the best-known bad Chinese photoshop, in part because the figure in the center is current Premier Li Keqiang:


Chinese state news agency Xinhua ran this 2004 photo purportedly showing now-Premier Li Keqiang and other officials in Liaoning province. (Xinhua)

There's also, Schiavenza adds, a tendency to keep churning out releases showing officials in a positive light, which can be tough if those officials aren't actually making any good-will trips or are on some long-term vacation somewhere, as they often are. So a local propaganda official might deploy a bit of cut-and-paste to get through the week, not anticipating he'll end up embarrassing the bosses he was hoping to please.

The Anhui officials in that photo up top, for their part, have responded to this old-school Communist Party flub with an old-school response, blaming it on a lower-level official whom they've ordered to file a formal "self-criticism" report. Hopefully, it will come illustrated.

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Max Fisher · October 31, 2013