How Did the Chinese Public Push Officials to Admit Fault in Tigergate?

Thirteen Chinese government officials were sacked earlier this week in connection with a set of fabricated photos, which they had claimed to be proof of a highly endangered tiger. The punishment came nine months after members of the Chinese public, especially Internet users, questioned with convincing evidence the authenticity of the photos, and the credibility of government officials.

Veteran journalist Chang Ping commented on how the Chinese public eventually got officials to admit their failures in the tiger incident in an article published on Reuters’ Chinese web site:

…Although many officials tried to defend the photos, mainstream public opinion concluded early on that they had been fabricated. The public also insisted that the government investigate the incident and tell the truth. So (when the government finally announced it found the photos to have been forged and punished the 13 officials for negligence), it should be considered a victory for public opinion.

Since it was a hard-won victory, I think it is important to analyze how it happened. In other words, how did public opinion effectively affect the decision-making of the government and successfully push for a positive result?

There are at least three factors that deserve our attention:

First, when the photos first came under suspicion of being faked, the public didn’t just criticize Mr. Zhou Zhenglong (the farmer who claimed to have taken the photos) , but went further to question the credibility of local authorities who appeared to have colluded with him…It was much more valuable to question government officials than to denounce an individual, because it pointed out problems within a powerful organization. If Mr. Zhou had just faked the photos to entertain himself, or if government officials had not been willingly cheated by the fabrication, the public didn’t need to make a big issue of it …

Second, the public did not let itself get held hostage by some abstract concept. They did not swing a moral stick around and call Mr. Zhou nasty names. Instead, they carefully examined the photos, analyzed evidence, and employed various empirical tools before reaching a conclusion.

Most importantly, public opinion in this case was not completely controlled or manipulated by government power. As in all other incidents, opinions expressed by members of the public were not all rational and reasonable. A number of people resorted to verbal abuse to express their opinions. This is normal. It should not be feared. What is truly worrying is when those in power control and manipulate public opinion, or restrict the free discussion of public affairs.

Local authorities tried to control public opinion in this incident. For instance, local media in Shaanxi(where the fabrication took place) did not fully cover the incident. Not a single People’s Representative mentioned the issue at the National People’s Congress, either. We could vaguely see the hidden hand of power behind the silenced discussions. But overall, the space for the public to express their opinions was not severely restricted during this incident. I believe that reasonable voices would eventually be heard and guide the way when there is no spectre of power prohibiting free discussion.

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