A doctored image of Chinese senior foreign policy advisor Yang Jiechi supposedly bowing to then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was published by some news media in 2020.
It appeared, for example, in a Radio Free Asia article on June 20, 2020 about the meeting between the two officials that took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. The same image could be found on Twitter at the time, indicating that it was circulating on the internet then.
Recently, this image has once again gained renewed attention on social media. It began spreading widely on March 19, 2021, when media commentator Cao Changqing posted it on his official Twitter account.
The image was seemingly used to show China’s attitude toward the former U.S. administration in comparison to the new one under President Joe Biden during the first high-level strategic dialogue between the two countries from March 18 to 20 in Anchorage, Alaska.
Cao’s tweet claimed that Yang bowing to Pompeo makes a sharp contrast to Yang’s tough appearance at the meeting on March 18. It earned over 1,100 likes and close to 300 retweets. The same image was also posted on Facebook and Reddit.
Annie Lab reconstructed how the image was manipulated and consulted an expert in image forensics.
The altered image is a composite of two news photos – one taken in a meeting between the two on June 14, 2018 and the other taken on Oct. 8, 2018, both in Beijing.
Yang’s head in the manipulated image was spliced from the photo of him taken on June 14, 2018 by Xinhua News Agency. It appears to have been rotated and superimposed on another photo by Getty Images taken on Oct.8, 2018. The latter news photo also appeared in the articles by the South China Morning Post and CNN.
Annie Lab also noticed that the painting of a horse in the background has a strange hoof. Another news photo taken at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse confirms that hoofs look pointed (also here) whereas in the manipulated image the hoof behind Yang appears round.
We suspected that it was a vestige of Yang’s hair and temple skin appearing next to the hoof when his body was digitally removed from the news photo. Image forensics expert Samuel Meyer validated our findings.
He said in an email on April 30 that the altered area can be a “ghost.” FotoForensics, a tool for analyzing digital images, explains that a “ghost,” or a gap, can be detected when an image has been spliced and placed in another image with a different quality.
“That little ghost of an image next to the horse’s hoof on the tapestry behind Yang and Pompeo. It does not appear on the original,” Meyer from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said.
“What it looks like is Mr. Yang’s hair near his temple, which the Photoshopper failed to rub out from the original image.”
Annie Lab also found other indications of digital manipulation.
The Chinese flag behind Yang in the original photo shows three five-pointed stars, which can be confirmed by other photos taken at the same time. The one blocked by Yang’s head in the original would have appeared in full if he had indeed bow but in the manipulated image, that star seems to have been removed.
The cuffs of Yang’s shirt are also visible in the manipulated photo. The original photos do not show them, indicating that his arms were also digitally altered considering the rest of the images such as the shaking hands and Pompeo’s body are perfectly identical.
Annie Lab cannot know whether or not Yang has bowed to Pompeo in the past meetings but we can confirm that this particular image in question has been doctored.