Photoshopped Pants and Why “Face” is a Poison

UPDATE: The nice folks over at 译者 have seen fit to translate this into Chinese. Check it out!

Warning: If you don’t like bitter rants, you may want to stop reading this after the first couple paragraphs. And if you don’t like sarcasm, you probably should never have come to this site in the first place.

Well, if you were wondering whether or not the “new masters” at the Beijing News (新京报) were going to exert control over the paper, wonder no longer. Behold:

You may already have heard about the tourist from Luoyang who came to see Beijing and got sent home and beaten because he was mistaken for a petitioner (keep in mind, it is not illegal to come to Beijing and petition the government anyway).

The image above is of said petitioner, passed out in the street after being beaten by police. The top photo was posted by Southern Metropolis Daily (as you can see by the watermark), one of the relatively independent newspapers in the Southern Media Group. The bottom one was posted to Weibo by — you guessed it! — the Beijing News.

Facepalm. Now, mix that with the revelation that national security police detained harassed and threatened a reporter for “revealing state secrets” because he reported on a former official’s sex dungeon murders. That’s right. The fact that a former firefighter was keeping six KTV hostesses in a sex dungeon — well, until he killed at least one of them, possibly two — that’s a “state secret.”

Of course, what they actually meant by “revealing state secrets” is ‘causing the local police force to lose face’. You may be wondering how trying to conceal sex slavery, kidnapping, and double homicide isn’t somehow a bigger loss of face. By all accounts the criminal here was not some high-level official…anyway, we’re getting sidetracked.

In both instances, the issue is face. Of course, in these cases, the “face-saving” effort was completely botched, but the principle is the same. Truth doesn’t enter into the equation, it’s all about polishing that turd and hoping someone — anyone — is fooled.

Time and time again, Chinese officials use this approach to take a real problem, an embarrassment, or, in some cases, nothing at all and turn it into a disaster (or a bigger disaster). Off the top of my head, here are a few examples:

  • The “Jasmine Revolution Protests” — Protests “organized” by a handful of overseas Chinese no one had ever heard of attracted almost no one save a few curious onlookers and a bunch of bemused journalists. Bemused, at least, until the cops showed up and started pushing people around trying to shut down a protest that wasn’t actually happening. They eventually locked up half ((Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. It’s a rhetorical strategy; shut up.)) of Beijing’s intelligentsia — none of whom had any connection to the calls for protest, of course ((If they have, we’ve seen no evidence of it)) — and beat up a couple Western journalists just to ensure what would have been the year’s biggest non-story would become a smoldering embarrassment that managed to garner international criticism even when half the Arab world was on fire.
  • The Wenzhou Train Crash — The crash was a disaster in and of itself, and one that was getting more embarrassing for China as each new detail emerged. But somehow, officials managed to make a horrible situation even worse by bungling rescue efforts, burying train cars, and then playing down these mistakes in what has got to be the most inept press conference in world history. When people started criticizing them, they tried to cover that up by deleting posts, then tried to un-cover-up the cover-up by letting people speak freely for a while, then went back to covering-up by deleting posts when it seemed things were getting out of hand. In doing so, they took what was a disaster for the nation’s high speed rail and turned it into a disaster for the nation, but most especially, for themselves and their own legitimacy.
  • The Sichuan Earthquake — Another disaster, this one was made worse by the fact that when people attempted to investigate the cause of collapsed buildings — or even just collect the names of the dead — they were harried, bullied, and harassed at every turn. This, of course, served to convince everyone the government was hiding something and by the time they finally released their own list of names, most people had already made up their minds about what had happened. As a result, the original story (gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result) — which was already pretty bad — got worse: gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result, gov’t tried to hide this even though it was plainly evident, gov’t probably now rebuilding things with same shoddy practices.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Whatever the situation, it can — and often will — be made worse by official attempts to save face.

Saving face is a universal desire — after all, who wants to look bad? — but given that “face” is essentially pure vanity with another name, some people are remarkably shameless about it here.

China is, as its “defenders” will point out to you endlessly, a developing country. Despite the shiny facades in Shanghai and Beijing ((not that you can see the shiny facades in Beijing for all the pollution…)), anyone who’s been to the countryside knows that this is still a third world country in many respects. I certainly don’t envy the people charged with running it.

But I have no sympathy or forgiveness for their perpetual desire to hide the truth — from the rest of the world ((a.k.a. that one country called 外国 where everyone eats 西餐 and has really cute babies.)) and from their own people and (probably) even themselves.

The story, of course, is that this is all in the name of national stability. If the people were allowed to see that man with his pants ripped, things could go bad. So they’ll get part of the truth — a watered down, photoshopped Truth Substitute (TM) that tastes almost like the real thing. See? Stability!

But even a little lie is still a lie. And though I’m still young, I’m old enough at least to have learned that the lie that stabilizes things in the short term (“No, I didn’t put that ding in your car!”) can be destabilizing and downright destructive in the long term. Especially when, day after day, you’re adding little lies on top of yesterday’s lies in an attempt to maintain the facade (“No really, I can’t even drive stick!”). Sooner or later, the whole thing is going to crumble.

The train crash, shoddy building practices, etc. — it’s very obvious that Chinese leaders, most of them anyway, are playing the short term game, so it’s no surprise they don’t care what their truth-massaging might lead to down the road. But for their sake, and for ours, I hope someone up there realizes this before they make whatever the next disaster is worse, too. Or, god forbid, the whole tower of lies comes crashing down on top of them.

That might seem like poetic justice. But of course, if the tower does collapse, it’s the people under them who will ultimately get crushed.

0 thoughts on “Photoshopped Pants and Why “Face” is a Poison”

  1. I wouldn’t say this is a face issue – the government in Taiwan has managed quite reasonably to avoid this kind of thing since the transition to democracy began.

    “a.k.a. that one country called 外国 where everyone eats 西餐 and has really cute babies.”

    Wait, I think I’ve heard of the same place – is this the same place where people are really ‘open’, everyone believes in Christianity, and there’s lots of guns and drugs?


  2. I’ve often said that the CCP likes to take dead aim at her foot, and she happens to be an excellent shot.

    I agree that while “saving face” might be a fairly universal reflex, the CCP does take it to the level of absurdity, and in so doing creates or worsens injustices along the way. Ultimately, the CCP is more concerned about how things look, rather than how things are.

    And if saving face is done ultimately in the name of “stability”, then what the CCP seeks is merely the facade of stability, rather than the real thing. Fortunately for her, they can enforce this facade with overt force, at least for now. Maybe that will change in the future.

    All that being said, the two photos you showed are actually separate photos, rather than one being the doctored version of the original. The perspective and angle from which the two photos are taken is different. You can’t Photoshop that…although I suppose they can CG that, if the CCP is motivated enough.

    Assuming the photo was doctored for face-saving purposes, you really have to wonder what the CCP is thinking. Is a guy beaten into unconsciousness on the street that much better than a guy beaten into unconsciousness on the street with his pants ripped? If they were going to doctor something, at least make it worthwhile…like putting a gun or knife in the guy’s hand. If the CCP is going to tell a lie (and we know it will), then man, might as well make it a doozie.


  3. C Custer,

    Now if you have some proof from the Chinese government to tell the newspaper to photoshop the picture, then I will accept it. Otherwise it is utter BS.


  4. Lol pug. Who else would tell them to photoshop it? Oh wait, you’re going to say the Beijing news took it upon themselves to do it?!?

    Besides, do you really think anyone gives a rat’s ass whether you “accept it” or not? Get real, dude


  5. @pug_ster:

    You’re right! It’s complete BS.

    Petitioners are always safe when they go to Beijing.

    Petitioners are never attacked or locked up by agents of their local governments.

    The official media praises petitioners for exercising their rights under Chinese law.

    And Chinese newspapers have never changed the content of images they publish with Photoshop.


  6. @ S.K. Cheung: yes, they’re separate photos; the question is how did his pants get magically repaired (or torn) between when the two photos were taken? The second photo is not a photoshopped version of the first photo, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t photoshopped.

    @ pug_ster: I don’t. Feel free not to “accept it”, I’m sure this is just a coincidence!


  7. Those are two different photos taken from different angles at different times. Look at the light reflection on the road above the body and the shape of the shirt. Somebody tidied up the pants of the victim before the second photo was taken.

    大惊小怪, 无聊!Don’t you have better things to do?


  8. XYZ,
    they’re two different photos. But there’s no way to tell how much time is elapsed between them. In fact, there is no way to tell which photo was first and which was second. As Custer says, the second photo is not a photoshopped version of the first, but that does not exclude the possibility that it was photoshopped nonetheless.

    Besides, you have to ask yourself this: somebody tidied up the guy’s pants (and for what reason? Modesty?) but left him lying on the sidewalk nonetheless, and didn’t do anything more useful than fixing his pants, like cover him up with something or put something under his head? That seems like misplaced priorities by this apparent Good Samaritan.

    And you’re again missing the point of the post. That’s habit-forming for you, isn’t it? The post is about the CCP’s incessant need for saving face. The “pants” episode is but one example, among several others Custer has listed. You need to read the entire post, not just the first 3 paragraphs.


  9. Basically Pugster is just telling us “至于你信不信,我反正信了.” Exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a US-based pro-CCP hobbyist.

    @XYZ – Yeah, we’re totally discussing whether he was photoshopped. This has nothing to do with whether he was:

    1) A tourist,

    2) mistaken for a petitioner, and,

    3) beaten up because of that.


  10. The face-saving thing… i think it’s what happens when power is so concentrated. every government makes mistakes, and every government tries to control the messaging and spin it to save face. most governments don’t have absolute control over the media and judiciary and pretty much every locus of power like the CCP does, though.

    so for them the question isn’t ‘how much face can we save,’ its ‘what do we do that prevents us from losing even the slightest bit of face?’ if the answer involves closing websites and beating up journalists and falsifying evidence, well… gotta save that face, right?

    exactly right on the short-term focus from the CCP, too. it’s all about how to survive this disaster right now, even if that means they’ll have to face larger disasters tomorrow.


  11. To FOARP:
    “pro-CCP hobbyist”…I like that term. And you’re right, he’s basically playing the part of the railway ministry spokesman/Polish traveler, but in the negative rather than affirmative.

    Heard a couple of “officials” responsible for the beating incident with the pants guy got fired…wonder which cushy post they will slide into next.

    You gotta love the CCP. It’s legal to petition. It’s illegal (I presume) to just randomly beat someone up. THe people doing something “legal” get rounded up. This guy gets beaten up and he wasn’t even a petitioner. The people responsible for illegal acts have no criminal repercussions. And if this guy had been a petitioner, those officials probably would’ve gotten a promotion instead. Ahhh, wonderful system.


  12. I agree that the regime’s misplaced concern with saving face creates obscene ironies.

    I’d just like to mention two questions unrelated to your essay which these photos inspire.

    First, if a man who was not a petitioner could be taken for a petitioner and beaten up & kidnapped and given the full treatment before the mistake was discovered, then can we not assume the same carelessness marks a great deal of other law enforcement (I use the word advisedly) in the PRC? In apolitical matters, doesn’t this incident suggest that a great many innocent people are convicted of crimes? Has domestic discussion of the incident explored this implication?

    Second, the pattern in which the man’s pants are ripped does not look to me like the result of random violence. It’s too symmetrical, and a real “rip” that took away that much of the garment would have been likely to take off the whole trouser leg. There is no blood on the legs. It looks to me as though the pockets were cut out with a knife or even a scissors. Was he robbed by the officials who thought he was a petitioner? That kind of turpitude is especially damaging to the legitimacy of a government, and the decision to photoshop it away would not be silly at all. This is only speculation on my part. But it would be interesting to learn more, if possible, about what happened to that unfortunate traveler.


  13. …..and most egregiously the CIA’s introduction of cocaine to the African-American Community.

    Peter Dale Scott: Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America.

    A fun read my friend, but that cocaine-Afro American part of Scott’s CIA argument was pretty tenuous, and hey I love the guys books.

    If you want to talk about cover ups, you should mention the FBIs COINTELPROgram which systematically murdered off Fred Hampton and others in the Black Panther leadership.

    Partially discussed here:

    Musical Indulgence….I Spy for the FBI

    Bolivian marching dust was sold thru black urban communities by brother entrepreneurs like Frank Matthews et al, and not by the likes of David Ferrie the albino.


  14. Just what the world needs now is another blog recycler (scanned it….yawn), and I’m not referring to Custer who seems to be dining on bear meat of late.


  15. Ohh pug, your grasp of logic (if I can even call it that in your case) is tenuous as always.

    The fact that the CCP didn’t force a photoshop job of the picture in EVERY media outlet does NOT mean it didn’t force a photoshop job by Beijing News.

    That’s also understandable, because Beijing News is much more of a mouthpiece for the CCP than SMPD. And SMPD is affiliated with the HK group, which is accustomed to much more leeway anyhow.

    Not to mention that the reporter who was detained over the sex slavery scandal worked for SMPD. They would’ve been feeling even less compelled to cooperate than usual.

    Herein endeth the lesson for the day.


  16. To pug_ster:

    Let me answer it with answers that I think you can comprehend.

    The reason is that it is simply a miracle, truly a miracle, so that they don’t do it. Anyway, whether you believe it or not, either way I believe it because my father is Li Gang.


  17. The Chinese propaganda dept want to lose face by deliberately having one newspaper photoshop the picture and have another one not to do it because my father is Li Gang. Yes, that make alot of sense.


  18. Dear Pug,
    “The Chinese propaganda dept want to lose face by deliberately having one newspaper photoshop the picture and have another one not to do it”
    —sigh, pug. You do try so very hard. I’m sure the authorities that be are rewarding you with gold stars on a regular basis for effort. THe results, on the other hand, leave something to be desired.

    Who says the CCP “deliberately” made one outlet photoshop while neglecting to make another one do it? It’s that when the CCP asks, the Beijing News will happily oblige, whereas SMPD might not so easily acquiesce, for the reasons already stated above.

    Besides, the CCP doesn’t “want to lose face”. I mean, who does, right? But that has never stopped to CCP from doing precisely that before, up to and including all of the examples listed in the OP.


  19. @ pug_ster:

    Then can you tell me why the ‘all powerful China’s propaganda dept’ didn’t tell nddaily to photoshop its photo.

    Because that’s not how it works at all.

    Every newspaper in China, state-owned and run or not, has to have a supervising Party agency that approves its content. Presumably you know this. So, why are some papers (for example, the Southern Media papers), generally more liberal than others? It is because they have different supervising agencies.

    China Media Project has a great in-depth run down of this, but here’s the short version: generally speaking, papers with higher-level supervising agencies, or papers with supervising agencies that aren’t in the same place the papers themselves report on, are allowed to get away with more “liberal” reporting.

    Why? Because the stories don’t directly concern the supervisors as much if they’re not local or if the supervisors are too high-level to be implicated.

    Let’s take the pants photo example, since that’s what we’re talking about here. The Beijing News (新京报) is now supervised by the Beijing municipal propaganda department. Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) is supervised by the Guangzhou Provincial Party Committee.

    Now, this story is about a man who came to Beijing and was beaten and sent home again for basically no reason. It potentially implicates Beijing authorities and has the potential to embarrass local leaders. The Beijing municipal propaganda department certainly has some reason to want to “soften” the story in any way they can, since it was going to be reported either way and as a municipal authority, they can’t stop papers supervised by other agencies from reporting it. But they can, if they wish, exercise editorial control over the Beijing News now (as well as other BJ papers), so it’s not unlikely that someone there was instructed to ‘clean up’ the photo a bit or otherwise soften the story.

    But SMD is supervised by Guangzhou provincial-level authorities, as mentioned above. The story doesn’t involve them directly, or even tangentially. Regionally, it doesn’t relate to them, and it wouldn’t implicate anyone on a provincial level anyway, so there’s no real reason for them to care too much about this story either way, which means SMD was probably free to publish basically whatever they wanted. In fact, from GZ provincial point of view, it could make them look bad if they ordered the story censored in some way and that was then somehow leaked, but if they let it be reported truthfully, they lose nothing whatsoever.

    Now, obviously, this system can and is sometimes overridden by national propaganda directives that everyone has to follow — for example, no positive editorials about Liu Xiaobo (or whatever). This tends to only happen for major stories, or stories with potential “national security/stability” implications (jasmine revolution, xinjiang/tibet riots, etc.) But in the grander scheme of things, this pants thing is a relatively minor story, and as far as I’m aware the national propaganda department doesn’t care much about it one way or the other, so there have been no directives from them. That being the case, newspapers can publish whatever they can get approved by their supervising agencies.

    This system is the reason why some papers are more critical and liberal than others. It all has to do with who supervises them, and what their interests are. National directives can override everything, but since there usually aren’t national directives, a paper can be as free (or as constrained) as their supervising agency allows them to be, and that usually hinges on the interests and vulnerabilities of that agency. The Guangzhou provincial committee, for example, allows liberal reporting on a lot of things because (1) their province isn’t involved and (2) even if it is, the people implicated are generally at least a few rungs down the ladder from them so there’s nothing for them to fear. In fact, letting critical reporting weed out some corrupt folks lower on the totem poll makes them look good, so there’s a little reason for them to encourage critical reporting even in their own region, so long as it doesn’t go too far.

    This is why people were so upset about the Beijing News being transferred to Beijing municipal propaganda department supervision. Before, they were supervised by Guangzhou provincial authorities, which allowed them to do lots of critical reporting on Beijing issues. But now they’re supervised by municipal-level local authorities, which basically ensures they can’t do much critical reporting on Beijing anymore.

    …Oh, I’m sorry, did you think I wouldn’t actually have an answer for that?


  20. I know a former reporter for the Beijing News. From what I heard from her its basically as Custer says, though from what I gather the majority of censorship is self censorship that happens more immediately through the in house editors before it gets the big red X that it would have gotten anyway.

    It’s a frustrating job, easily half a reporter’s stories, many of which have required huge commitment get “filed” due to being the news therein being “unacceptable”. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Imagine how soul crushing it must have been for the photo retoucher to get passed such a request.

    I don’t quite understand Pugster, I respect his perseverance, but for nearly every thread he’s posted in he’s been dealt at least one rebuttal for which he has no reply, and that would curdle the ego of most sane people. I think the reason why he gets accused of trolling so often is that its difficult to imagine someone who consistently does the argumentative equivalent of bare knuckle boxing a cactus without suspecting that its some sort of a prank.


  21. C Custer,

    You didn’t answer my question. Your explanation makes no sense at all. If the ‘Beijing propaganda dept’ wants to photoshop this picture, wouldn’t they make a simple phone call to other ‘propaganda agencies?’ Brightgrey gave a more logical answer as most newspapers out there practice kind of self censorship, including most Western ones.


  22. @Putzster –

    ” . . . including most Western ones”

    Name one serious UK media outlet which would nix an otherwise interesting story because it was politically inconvenient.

    My good friend The Writing Baron ( ) who has worked for publications including The Guardian, would simply laugh at what you’ve just written. Hell, even The Times covered the Murdoch scandal, even The Guardian covered the expenses scandal, let alone minor, penny-ante, embarassing-only-to-low-level-officials stuff like this.

    @Custer –

    I’ve got big, massive ‘spect for David Bandurski and the CMP crew, but sometimes they can be a bit on the long/dry side. You said in 500 words what it took them a good few thousand to say.


  23. @ pugster,

    Editing =/= censorship. But that’s not to say I’m in support of “Western” media’s editing either. Western media usually edits in interest of self preservation, profit and so on, in other words in a late capitalist society the media is coerced into pushing certain information, in a certain way. So, if what we are talking about is editing for coercion, then yes its terrible and happens, but the effects of coercion are different – it still at least hypothetically allows for self reflexivity and so on, whereas the effects of directed restriction, are different again and don’t allow for self reflexivity. I’m not saying one is better than the other (and I don’t think either are necessary), but in China the media is lucky enough to have both financial coercion and censorship.


  24. “Heck, if I was the ‘Beijing propaganda dept,’”
    —hey Pug, you might be on to something. That might be one thing you could be good at, because debating other people on blogs using logic certainly isn’t your forte.

    “Your explanation makes no sense at all.”
    —says the guy with no capacity for logic and very little if any common sense. Custer explained it perfectly. The Beijing censors control the Beijing papers, and they’re concerned about a possible embarrassment to local Beijing officials. The Beijing censors don’t control Guangzhou papers. The Guangzhou papers don’t care about embarrassing Beijing officials. And the Guangzhou censors don’t care because it’s not their officials who are being embarrassed. So the Beijing News gets busy photoshopping, while the SMPD carries on. The one thing you can claim in your undying support of the CCP is that this is an example of the local boys getting busy, and doesn’t implicate the Central higher-ups, probably because this is not an event that the central dudes care about. If the order came from on high, then perhaps you’d be seeing lock-step nation-wide.

    Anyway, nice try. By all means, please keep talking.


  25. pug_ster’s “prime directive” is to change the subject and derail threads. That’s why his retorts always appear to be written by someone who didn’t read the post or comment he is responding to.


  26. FOARSE,

    How about taping open battles in Iraq or Afghanistan and report on the civilians being killed? How about reporting on the UK riots and explain the reason why these people riot instead of dismissing them as hooligans? There’s so much one sided propaganda and that’s the problem.

    I’m not going to bother to reply to all the noinsensical garbage because I have things to do.


  27. You didn’t answer my question. Your explanation makes no sense at all. If the ‘Beijing propaganda dept’ wants to photoshop this picture, wouldn’t they make a simple phone call to other ‘propaganda agencies?’ Brightgrey gave a more logical answer as most newspapers out there practice kind of self censorship, including most Western ones.

    The Beijing Municipal Propaganda department doesn’t have the authority to make anyone outside of Beijing do anything. Sure, they could make a phone call, but why should the guy on the other end of the line give a shit what they want? If they called the Guangzhou Provincial Party Committee, for example, do you really think the GZ guys would care or even listen? There’s no reason for them to; running the photo unedited does them no harm whatsoever, but running it edited could. Not to mention the fact that that would be a minor municipal bureaucrat calling provincial level leaders from a province that city isn’t even in — I kind of doubt they’d even take the call, to be honest.

    It would be a bit like the press secretary from a municipal department in New York City calling state leaders in California and asking them to handle a piece of New York-related news in a a certain way. Sure, they’re welcome to try calling, but what are the chances anyone on the other end really cares? They have their own priorities, and they’re not going to soft-pedal some news just so that NYC cops don’t get yelled at.

    Anyway, I don’t care if the explanation makes no sense to you, that is how it works. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who works in Chinese media. Just because YOU apparently don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not true.


  28. To da Pug:
    “How about taping open battles in Iraq or Afghanistan”
    —some brave war correspondent and photog have probably done that. The nature of the footage, however, is probably not suitable for the 6 o’clock news. War is undoubtedly gruesome. I think most people realize that already. Now, how does that relate to China, or to this thread?

    “report on the civilians being killed?”
    —do you know that civilians have been killed? If you do, you might want to think about how you came across that knowledge. I’ll wait while the lightbulb in your head illuminates …ever …so… slowly.

    “How about reporting on the UK riots and explain the reason why these people riot”
    —they have, or have you not been reading or listening to anything for the past 2 months? Were you busy spelunking or something?

    “There’s so much one sided propaganda”
    —actually, the information you require is everywhere. If you choose not to consume it and would rather feed your own ignorance, that’s your right. But ignorance on your part does not make it propaganda on theirs. And again, how does that relate to China or to this thread? Why is it that you come to a blog about China to speak about everything except China?


  29. To Custer:
    “Just because YOU apparently don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
    —precisely. People should not be constrained by the lowest common denominator.


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