Crouching tiger, hidden motive: an epic tale of public discontent at media manipulation
Officials of the Shaanxi Forestry Department had no idea they were plunging headlong into a controversy when they released photographs two months ago of a South China tiger - a species on the brink of extinction - purportedly taken by local hunter Zhou Zhenglong .
But in the weeks that followed, the mainland was engulfed in frenzied debate over the authenticity of the photos. The incident developed quickly into an embarrassing political issue for the authorities, with their credibility being challenged publicly.
The controversy even spilled over into the international scientific arena early last month when, in the influential US-based magazine Science, Washington state scientist and tiger expert Gary Koehler was quoted as saying: 'It's tremendously exciting news, if it can be substantiated.'
Beyond the issue of authenticity, more questions surround what the mainland media has dubbed 'Tigergate': Why did it embarrass provincial and central government authorities? Why is the public so eager for an honest assessment about seemingly amateurish photos?
Some say the affair has highlighted profound changes in civil society and is a big lesson to bureaucrats who embarrass themselves by feigning ignorance of public doubts about official information.
And some analysts go further, saying Tigergate is a successful example of free expression and the pursuit of truth and transparency.
Tigergate took off in mid-October, when the Shaanxi Forestry Department released photographs that it said were taken by 52-year-old Mr Zhou, a farmer and hunter from Zhenping county, that month in the forests near his hometown.
The department gave Mr Zhou 20,000 yuan and the title of 'hero photographer' for showing that the tiger, a subspecies not sighted on the mainland for more than two decades, had reappeared and was still alive in the wild in Shaanxi.
Forestry officials moved swiftly to apply for Zhenping county to become a state nature reserve, citing the photos as 'concrete evidence'.
But the spell of excitement was short-lived. Various sectors of the public, including media outside Shaanxi, internet critics, netizens, photography experts and scientists raised questions about the photos and accused Mr Zhou of using digital software to manufacture the images.
Reporters converged on Shaanxi to interview the hunter and found more holes in his story.
Then, some netizens discovered a widely released 2002 Lunar New Year poster, in which a tiger crawling in the forest looked identical to the one shown in Mr Zhou's photos.
Doubters said the tiger's stripes were an unnatural colour and its body was not in proportion with the surrounding foliage. Also, Mr Zhou claimed to have no photographic experience.
In addition, the photos were taken over quite a long time - half an hour or so - but it was unlikely that a tiger crouching in dense vegetation would stare into a camera at close range without moving.
Late last month, a website took matters into its own hands and invited six photography, zoology and botany experts to examine the photos. The panel unanimously dismissed the tiger as a fake.
Mainland media said that proof of a nearly extinct wild tiger in Zhenping would have given the county and provincial governments access to millions of yuan in state funding. It would also have attracted tourists to the tiger habitat, boosted the economy and burnished officials' records.
The public suspected Tigergate was cooked up by Mr Zhou, local authorities and the State Forestry Administration to reap the potentially huge economic rewards.
Nevertheless, amid the widespread ridicule, Mr Zhou and the forestry officials stuck firmly to their position, insisting the photos were authentic. The deliberate ambiguity of the Shaanxi government and forestry authorities was in sharp contrast to the desire of the public and netizens to dig out the truth.
By last week, the State Forestry Administration, which has sponsored a so far fruitless search for the tiger, refused to rule on the veracity of the photos and pushed responsibility for proving the images' authenticity on to its Shaanxi subordinates.
As a Bokee.com blogger said: 'People wanted not only to prick the bubble of a lie and get a reply to the doubts, but also to safeguard the sense of social responsibility and send a message to local authorities that they have to make sure information they release is real.'
Zhou Xiaozheng , a sociology professor of Renmin University, said the internet debate and challenges posed by Tigergate had gone beyond the scope of cyberspace and become a social phenomenon, attracting attention from all sides.
'This process actually guaranteed the citizens' rights to know and encouraged more people to participate in the expression and monitoring of social events. It's a reflection of democracy,' Professor Zhou said.
Beijing-based legal academic Xu Zhiyong said public suspicion of administrators was an entrenched attitude.
'In China, the public has a habit of doubting' what governments say, Mr Xu said. 'They have a deep-rooted mistrust of authorities because of corruption and bureaucracy.
'The government lacks credibility with the public; it's a deep-rooted social problem. And this time, local authorities showed their stupidity and naive administrative skills by presenting one lie after another, adding fuel to the fire of public anger.'
Mr Xu said the public had every reason to challenge the authenticity of the images, because 'it was based on these photos that local authorities announced the reappearance of the South China tiger and a proposal for a nature reserve funded by taxpayers' money'.
'Therefore provincial and state authorities have an obligation to give a response to public doubts rather than try to escape them,' he said.
Wang Xixin , a law professor from the Centre for Public Participation Studies and Support at Peking University, said Tigergate 'put the spotlight on existing problems with the government's reputation and attitude towards public participation and discussion'.
'At the centre of the debate were the woeful lack of credibility of the government and the failure of officials to show that public doubts count,' Professor Wang said.
'Local authorities and forestry officials haven't changed their outdated approach of turning a deaf ear to public questioning of official information. They don't have the courage to face doubts, don't provide an efficient channel to present transparent information or to answer public questions.
'In a transitional society, especially when the events are not that sensitive, everybody has more freedom of expression about social events and, with the support of an active media and the internet, they require the government to communicate with the public directly.'
Professor Wang said Tigergate was a reminder to officials that a new public order was taking shape and they had to recognise the public's power of participation.
'It's a good learning process for the public and government officials,' he said.