China wouldn’t be China without the officious slogans that plaster every other wall and railing, educating citizens on the latest government policy or crackdown. But the banners and billboards that began appearing in March all over Shuangfeng, a rural county in central China’s Hunan province, bore exhortations more curious than most. “Let all of society take action! Let’s engage in a people’s war against blackmailing activities using fake obscene pictures,” read one. Another urged: “Crack down on the crime of extortion using fabricated obscene photos.”
What lies behind these unusual party directives? Proficiency in Photoshop, apparently. Starting in 2011, a number of Shuangfeng residents began supplementing their income by using the popular software to create fake sex photos featuring local officials and businessmen. The images were then sent to those purportedly involved in a crude blackmail scheme, according to government prosecutors. In mid-March, police arrested eight suspects from four gangs that were accused of trying to raise $7.35 million through doctored pornography. Since last year, 37 suspects have been arrested in connection with 127 such extortion cases, according to local media. On its website, the Shuangfeng police department published a list of blackmail suspects still at large.
China’s systemic corruption, currently the target of a crackdown by new leader Xi Jinping, is often tied to sexual scandal. In recent months, numerous Chinese officials have been targeted in online show-and-shame campaigns that usually involve images — apparently genuine — of errant cadres in various stages of undress, accompanied by women other than their wives. A survey conducted by Renmin University in January found that 95% of the corrupt officials caught in 2012 maintained mistresses.
In a celebrated case last November, Lei Zhengfu, a district-level official in the sprawling southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, was shown having sex with then 18-year-old Zhao Hongxia in a video uploaded by a local journalist. The footage, which captured an encounter five years before, went viral. Zhao later admitted that she was paid by a local contractor to blackmail Lei into passing an infrastructure project to his company. Lei was investigated by the Chongqing discipline department and sacked from his position.
Such is the suspicion of officials in China that many are prepared to believe that the Shuangfeng photos are genuine, even though, as resident He Xiaoke tells TIME, the town is “famous for making false documents.” On Weibo, the Chinese social-media service that flourishes in part because Twitter is banned in China, users have suggested that at least some of the images are real and believe that the crackdown on photo falsification is a smokescreen to protect wayward officials. “If you are upright, you do not fear that your shadow is at an angle,” one user posted.
After the banners became Weibo fodder, the Shuangfeng slogans were hurriedly removed from town. In their place, slogans more typical of Chinese street corners have been hung, like “Be honest and trustworthy, build a harmonious society.” Given the sharp social, economic and political divisions in Chinese society today, officials wanting to paint a picture of harmony might want to resort to Photoshop too.