- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
Now viral in China: A failed attempt at photo doctoring. On the evening of Oct. 29, Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, lit up with mockery at an image (above) posted online Oct. 12 by the government of Ningguo, a small city in China’s central Anhui province, purporting to show vice-mayor Wang Hun pay a friendly visit to an elderly woman. There’s only one problem: The image, which appears to show Wang floating above a particularly tiny woman, has clearly been modified.
That might not seem like much, but it’s manna for Chinese netizens, who feast on concrete examples of government dishonesty. In June 2011, officials from Huili county in Sichuan province were also spotted "floating" in a clearly doctored photograph that purported to show them inspecting a local highway. Web users reacted with derision and outrage, even though, as the Guardian wrote in June 2011, the visits were real; a photographer had decided one of the original images was "not suitably impressive." Photoshopping is such a favorite target that the term "PS" has even become a widely-recognized part of Chinese online slang.
It’s unclear who first discovered the image on the Ningguo government’s website, which features a series of (otherwise seemingly real) images depicting the city’s vice-mayor joining a bevy of other local officials to pay visits to women aged 100 years or older, in honor of the Double Ninth Festival, a holiday that honors ancestors.
Now that netizens have found a new target, they seem unlikely to let go any time soon — regardless of the motive behind the modification. Not only has the Weibo account of Communist Party-run newspaper People’s Daily joined in the derision, but some web users have pointed out that Yu Anlin, a local bureaucrat pictured standing (not floating) to Wang’s right, appears to be wearing, well, a watch. That too sounds innocent enough, but Chinese officials have become leery of being spotted with timepieces, lest online slueths discover them to be too expensive for an honest official to afford. That revelation felled the career of another provincial bureaucrat named Yang Dacai, an erstwhile safety official who was sentenced in September to 14 years in prison on corruption changes.
Now, Wang and Yu are famous too, and for all the wrong reasons. The impact of this snafu on their careers is uncertain, but they can be sure China’s social web will be watching them closely.