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The Floating Officials of China

The art of the Photoshopped photo-op.

China is at the forefront of many 21st century technologies, like superfast trains and alternative energy research. But regional officials around the country might need a primer on one of the most basic of desktop technologies: Photoshop. A public relations disaster is brewing in Ningguo, a small city in eastern China, where officials were found to have doctored a photo in which they pay a visit to the city's oldest resident, a centenarian named Cheng Yanchun.


The picture was supposed to be a heartwarming photo-op for Ningguo vice-mayor Wang Hun and his comrades. Instead, the altered photo (above) – which depicts three Yao Ming-sized officials and one floating / vanishing legless man towering over a Hobbit-like elderly lady – has triggered a storm of ridicule online.

Originally posted on the Ningguo Civil Affairs Bureau website, the photo was discovered after another local controversy drove traffic to the government site. The officials apparently did in fact visit the elderly Ms Cheng, but they were unsatisfied with photos that had been taken. Xu Feiyu, the employee responsible for the Photoshop screw-up, told China Central Television (CCTV): "I thought this photo by itself didn't really represent the occasion. So I put the two pictures together. At the time I didn't think there would be such a big reaction."

Lest readers get the impression that this was an isolated incident, a little context may be necessary. The floating officials of Ningguo are in fact part of a long-standing tradition of Chinese government Photoshop butchery. While the officials in Ningguo had their photo edited in order to enhance their photo-op, other cases are even more egregious, often involving digital renderings of situations that never actually happened in the first place. What’s most surprising is that the mangled manipulation of images continues unabated, even after widespread



In 2011, citizens in Huili, a county in Sichuan province, came upon a lead story on a local government website about a newly completed highway running through the countryside. The accompanying photo looks like a cut-and-paste job out of a year 3 classroom: three well-dressed officials casually levitating over the freshly paved road. The Guardian called the Huili photo "one of the worst-doctored photographs in internet history". See for yourself above.

In 2009, a regional tourism bureau website in Henan province posted a photo that bore the government's trademark Photoshop ineptitude: a pair of high-ranking officials floating on the peak of a mountain, fully illuminated by the sun despite the fact they are clearly standing in the shadow of a massive boulder. In an interview with local media, the Henan Photoshop culprit attempted to explain: “It was a hot summer day and my bosses were wearing sports clothing to climb the mountain; I thought it would be better if they were wearing formal clothing, so I made some alterations.”

On August the 4th, 2011, a state-owned enterprise in Shandong province posted a photo on their website entitled, “Ceremony to Kick-off the Angola Infrastructure Transformation Project.” In the frame, a jumbled group of African men – all of whom are appear to be digital transplants – crowd together under the Chinese company's banner. The photo was quietly taken down from the site on August the 8th after being exposed by local media.


Another 2011 photo unearthed from a county website in Shanxi province features six local officials overseeing the "destruction of fake alcohol". The officials fit quite well into their surroundings, but the massive pile of “fake alcohol” looks about as real as Darryn Lyons' six-pack.

Lazy government officials in the city of Hangzhou thought they could skip a standard park inspection and instead have one of their aides digitally concoct the scene. The (predictable) result: another PR firestorm in which the local authorities had to issue a formal apology. A user on Sibo Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, wrote: “Our leaders really are no longer common people – they don’t even have shadows on sunny days!”

Follow Adam on Twitter: @yadang_century

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