Paper tigers that roar

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2007, 12:00am

The farcical events surrounding the claimed sighting of a wild South China tiger - widely thought to be extinct - in Shaanxi province show that paper tigers can be just as dangerous as the real thing. No one has been maimed, but officials in the local Forestry Department and county government have been mauled recently by netizens and the normally toothless mainland media.

It's almost two months since farmer Zhou Zhenlong emerged from the mountains of Zhenping county with what he claimed were photos of a wild tiger. Officials were quick to hail his discovery, but now their credibility is in tatters. By refusing to acknowledge that they were conned by Mr Zhou, they have further diminished the public's dwindling faith in all officialdom.

Eagle-eyed netizens started picking apart the pictures of the 'tiger' as soon as they appeared on the Web. Its stripes were an unnatural colour, they noted, and its body was not in proportion with the surrounding foliage. Reporters who descended on Zhenping county found that no tigers had been spotted in the area for 20 years. It now seems likely that Mr Zhou simply photographed a painting of a tiger on a calendar.

Nevertheless, the Shaanxi Forestry Department is still refusing to concede the photos are fakes. Last week, an official spokesman said the department would wait until a team of experts had carried out a field investigation before making a final decision on the pictures' authenticity.

That's despite the fact that even the official media, like Xinhua, are reporting the photos as fakes, while the China Photographers Society has confirmed the images aren't real.

A refusal to back down and to use obvious delaying tactics have long been the classic responses of mainland officials faced with having to admit to mistakes or illicit activity. But a fake photo of a tiger is hardly as serious as the recent accusations by Britain and Germany that government-backed hackers are indulging in cyber-espionage. Beijing's denials are understandable, yet it's ironic that the mainland should be accused of cyber-crime: it justifies its tight control of the internet as necessary to prevent illegal activity.

But something is very wrong when officials from an obscure county think they can salvage a situation, and their reputations, by a flat-out refusal to accept the truth in a relatively trivial matter. This culture of denial has fostered so much public scepticism that it's now standard for people to question any official pronouncement.

Even real achievements are scoffed at. When the first images of the moon taken by the Chang'e I probe were released recently, it wasn't long before some netizens were claiming that they were simply copies of old Nasa photos. And, despite the efforts of space officials to prove otherwise, many will not change their minds.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist