SHANGHAI, China – It all started with a farmer and his claim of sighting a rare tiger, backed up by supposed photos of the animal in the local woods, curled up and staring at the camera.
Zhou Zhenglong's pictures touched off one of China's most fevered obsessions — a monthslong squabble that ended with confirmation the photos were faked and the announcement of punishment for more than a dozen officials who had backed the pictures' authenticity.
China's fiercely vocal online community latched on to Zhou's photo evidence, hyper-analyzing it and exposing it as a paper tiger — an old poster propped up among the trees.
But outraging the Internet activists even more were the local officials, whom they accused of supporting the doctored photos to boost tourism to the arid, poor province of Shaanxi.
"In my opinion, this is the struggle between the truth and government interest," said Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University. "Zhou's just a normal farmer who was inspired by money. The big boss behind this is, of course, the officials of Shaanxi province."
The scandal reinforced popular disgust with government corruption and showed that public opinion, amplified by the Internet, can occasionally win out in authoritarian China.
This is a country where most protests are shushed and critical Web postings can be taken down as soon as they're posted, yet people in China can be skilled at finding channels for their opinions.
One popular target is fakes: fake products, fake credentials, even last year's highlight — a TV news story about supposedly fake buns filled with cardboard that was itself accused of being faked.
The tiger story began when Zhou, a 54-year-old farmer and hunter, heard that someone could win more than 1 million yuan (about $145,000) for finding an endangered South China tiger in the wild, where it hadn't been seen in more than 20 years, according to state media accounts.
Last October, he emerged from the woods in Shaanxi with his claim of a sighting, plus dozens of digital photos.
Officials in Shaanxi embraced his claim, awarding him 20,000 yuan (nearly $3,000) and praise at a news conference little more than a week later.
"After the careful examination, experts confirmed the authenticity of the photos. That means the tiger has been found again after more than 20 years," the China Daily newspaper quoted Zhu Julong, deputy director of the Shaanxi Forestry Administration Bureau, as saying.
But China's Internet community suspected a fake. The tiger was too shiny, they said. And no matter where a picture was taken among the trees, the tiger's position never changed.
When someone produced an old poster with a photo that looked strikingly like Zhou's tiger and posted it online, the public called for an official investigation.
Still, Shaanxi officials stuck to their defense of the pictures, until increasing pressure forced them to concede last week that the sighting was a hoax. Zhou was arrested on charges of fraud.
But the anger in China isn't so much about him.
"A small number of officials ignored science, common sense and broiling public opinion to play with the public trust," complained the Southern Metropolitan Daily, a newspaper known for its aggressive reporting. "When the wisdom of the people stripped away the emperor's new clothes, the officials lied and used bureaucracy to keep the truth from coming out."
The newspaper even hinted that Zhou might have had some help from officials.
Zhou's wife, Luo Dacui, couldn't be reached by telephone, but she told the Jiangsu province-based Yangtse Evening News that her husband wasn't the only person who should take the blame.
Authorities said seven officials were fired, including Zhu, the forestry official, and six others received less severe discipline.
Shaanxi authorities also organized a meeting to discuss the case and urged thousands of officials to attend. But a photo of the meeting published by the Shanghai Morning Post showed some of the officials sleeping.
"I think it looks quite funny, but it's actually very sad," said Jiang Chenkui, a Shanghai-based lawyer. "It means that our government officials lack a basic sense of honesty. That's pretty bad.