BEIJING — IF it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
And if it barks like a dog? It’s probably not an “African lion.”
That’s how an exhibit at a zoo in the Chinese city of Luohe was labeled, but that’s not what the exhibit held, a discrepancy apparent when a mother who had been teaching her young son about sounds that different animals make heard the one that they were looking at emit something tamer and more familiar than a roar.
A fluffy-maned mastiff was standing in for the king of the jungle, and none too persuasively.
At the Luohe zoo, such understudies were reportedly everywhere: in the wolf’s cage, another dog; in the leopard’s lair, a fox.
It was Noah’s ersatz ark, not to mention fresh proof that no country does knockoffs with a versatility and an ambition quite like China’s.
The zoo story broke shortly before I got here last week.
After, the news was dominated by the “trial of the century” of the disgraced Communist Party bigwig Bo Xilai, accused of a degree of avarice and corruption that mocked his onetime reputation as a champion of the little people.
With transcripts released nearly in real time, the legal proceedings were made to seem, at least initially, like a bold new experiment in government transparency.
Except they weren’t.
The transparency was partly counterfeit.
Many reporters couldn’t get into the courtroom, portions of testimony were clearly redacted, and a few of the official photos looked staged, a possibility noted on social media when Bo, a tall man, was shown wedged between two court officers who were both, against all odds, even taller.
Suddenly, miraculously, the strapping hero was a humbled pipsqueak, which was pretty much how the government wanted him seen.
And his Chinese audience feasted on a layer cake of fakery: the fraudulently open trial of an allegedly fraudulent populist made to look fraudulently small.
This was my first time in mainland China, and I was struck by paradoxical realities.
One, which I fully expected, was just how much is being built and accomplished here, at a velocity that takes your breath away.
The other was how much exaggeration, gilding, deception and misdirection nonetheless occur.
In Beijing I turned to a local resident I’d met and remarked, “This city is greener than people tell you it is.”
“Not really,” she responded, explaining that the trees we happened to be passing by were neither representative nor entirely honest.
They’d been planted, along with tens of millions of others, for the 2008 Olympics, as Beijing constructed a Potemkin eco-friendliness for the world.
These were the same Olympics, I was later reminded, at which the adorable little girl singing “Ode to the Motherland” at the opening ceremony was lip-syncing to the voice of another little girl who had been deemed insufficiently adorable for the television cameras.
Of course most cities pretty themselves up for guests, the trees are here to stay and even Beyoncé pulled a fast one, using prerecorded vocals for President Obama’s second inauguration.
And all great, self-respecting nations have their areas of expert artifice, their specialized spuriousness: Venezuela, its plastic beauty-pageant contestants; Italy, its lowballed tax returns; Britain, its hollow courtesies; America, its Ponzi schemes.
To forge is human.
But the Chinese are divine at it. Or at least unabashed.
The reported food scams are most infamous: rat masquerading as lamb; bargain-basement liquor in premium-brand bottles; soy sauce made from human hair swept off barbershop floors and processed for optimal deliciousness.
There was even a widely disseminated dispatch in 2007 about dumplings filled with cardboard, but in a transcendently poetic twist, the story itself was called into question as a possible fake.
There have been very serious problems with phony pharmaceuticals and less serious ones with make-believe monks, their reverent garb and holy mannerisms a ruse for collecting donations and peddling spiritual trinkets.
Earlier this year two temples on one of China’s sacred Buddhist mountains were closed because of such impostors.
In July an entire museum was shuttered after claims that many of its 40,000 artifacts weren’t quite as ancient as they pretended to be.
One of the giveaways?
The kind of writing on relics that supposedly dated back four millenniums hadn’t come into widespread use until the last 100 or so years.
I’ve read about a bogus Apple store so much like the genuine article that its employees as well as its customers were duped.
Beijingers I met filled me in on other improvisations.
“Fake commenters,” one of them said, explaining that you can’t know whether the assent and the raves that accompany a Web post or video are real or paid for, a practice believed to be especially prevalent here. “Fake divorces,” another Beijinger said, noting a phenomenon by which couples who were trying to avoid extra taxes on the sale of second homes would dissolve their unions and thus become two individuals with one home each.
They would then remarry once their real-estate transaction was complete.
David Barboza of The Times wrote about that in March.
Last month he was back with an exposé of the sprawling Chinese industry in fake receipts and invoices, with which employees defraud companies and companies defraud the government.
During one government crackdown on that industry in 2009, 1,045 production sites for fictive invoices were closed.
I’VE been asking people who know China a whole lot better than I do what to make of all of this.
They say that it’s an example of entrepreneurship on steroids, of an economy moving so fast and furiously that regulations are pointless and real vigilance is almost impossible.
They say that it reflects a culture in which the face of things often attracts more fussing than the soul of them and that it’s an offshoot of a political system dependent on impressions, atmospherics, half-truths.
In any case it’s corrosive, eating away at the trust that people on the outside and the inside can have in this mighty country and its manifold wares.
And it’s worrisome, at times jeopardizing people’s health, perhaps mental as well as physical.
I felt relentlessly on guard.
I was always suspicious.
Riding down the mountainside from a stretch of the Great Wall, I noticed a sign in the cable car that said that President Bill Clinton had used the very same vessel for his own Wall excursion on June 28, 1998.
As soon as my car stopped, I sprinted around the landing platform to try to look inside others and see if they made the same claim.
Workers foiled me, so I’ll never be sure: was my perch Bill’s perch?
Or had I been a sitting duck for yet more Chinese quackery?