Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been the target of much misleading information on Chinese social media over the past two years.
Images of her have been doctored to appear to show her gaining weight and posts asserted she castigated the Chinese people for using chopsticks for apparently environmental reasons.
These claims have been debunked time and time again. At Annie Lab, our fact-checking project at the University of Hong Kong, we tried to set the record straight about the manipulated images in 2021 and 2022.
These fraudulent posts against Thunberg may seem harmless. But our research has traced it back to a wider narrative, one that is seen as retaliation for her perceived “attacks” on China.
In May 2021, Thunberg tweeted that China, while categorised as a developing nation, still emits a lot of greenhouse gases. “We can’t solve the climate crisis unless China drastically changes course,” she said.
This spurred heated reactions from China Daily’s EU bureau chief Chen Weihua, who tweeted back to Thunberg that she was barking up the wrong tree because developed countries are the biggest historical emitters.
Your PR team should educate u more. 1. China’s pop is 2xOECD, so per capita emission much lower. 2. OECD countries have relocated much pollution/emission industries to China/other developing nations. So don’t pretend you’re innocent. 3. OECD by far the largest historical emitter.
— Chen Weihua （陈卫华） (@chenweihua) May 8, 2021
Thunberg was then labelled a “puppet of Western politicians” and a “selective environmentalist” by Chinese netizens who claimed that, although she spoke about China’s carbon footprint, she did not discuss Japan’s plan to release nuclear wastewater into the Pacific. In reality, Thunberg did share this latter news on Twitter.
The slew of misleading posts against Thunberg is just one example of how climate misinformation has evolved in China.
More than a decade ago, climate change was framed as a Western hoax by popular TV host Larry Lang Hsien-ping, host of the evening show Larry’s Eyes on Finance, who said in a 2010 episode that Western countries “manufactured the climate myth without any scientific integrity”.
This belief was echoed in some Chinese books published between 2009 and 2011. However, these books “disappeared” after 2011, in common with public statements made by prominent figures like Lang.
Climate journalist Geoff Dembicki has linked this to a number of factors, including a 2012 survey showing 93% of Chinese people believed climate change is happening and the government tackling climate change head-on.
However, climate misinformation in China’s digital sphere is still very much alive. For our report, we collected over 100 misleading posts on Chinese social media platforms including Weibo, Douyin and Baidu between September 2022 and April 2023.
We also looked into platforms outside the country’s ‘Great Firewall’ such as YouTube, Twitter, Rumble, Bitchute, as well as news outlets like The Epoch Times, a far-right publication linked to Falun Gong, a religious sect banned in China.
Although China is now seen as a green technology hub, we found Chinese social media posts, particularly on Twitter, sharing unverified videos supposedly showing Beijing’s shoddy products such as e-vehicles bursting into flames and wind turbines breaking.
While we were not able to definitively determine the motivations behind these posts attacking China’s low-carbon initiatives, we can say that they indicate divergence and dissonance in political viewpoints.
A more pronounced and direct example is the perpetuation of debunked claims about climate science by The Epoch Times in an attempt to show that climate change is an agenda pushed by China for its own benefit.
Another narrative we found claimed that rising temperatures would make parts of mainland China prosperous again, referencing the experiences of Han and Tang Dynasty. This, however, has been debunked by experts from Chinese government agencies themselves.
China Environment News, the official publication of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, quoted Zhang Chengyi, a researcher at the China Meteorological Administration’s National Climate Center in its fact-check on the topic. Zheng said rising temperature is not the only factor behind changes in rainfall, an explanation which addresses beliefs that increased warming will lead to more precipitation in arid areas in northwestern China.
The China Environment News article also pointed out that the belief that “the most prosperous era in Chinese history was in the warm period”, was mainly based on the preliminary research of Zhu Kezhen, China’s foremost meteorologist. His work made the same observations, but it overlooked other contributing factors such as political, economic, diplomatic and social conditions.
We also found narratives that undermined the human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and pointed to other causes, such as solar activity and volcanic eruption. There were posts alleging that climate change is part of a natural cycle and that the world is entering an ice age soon.
China has sought to address this kind of misinformation. China Youth Daily, quoting experts from China’s space weather forecasting station, debunked a claim about solar activity supposedly causing extreme weather events.
The above examples show China’s conscious efforts to correct some narratives of climate misinformation.
But when it comes to climate misinformation that has a patently more political aspect or is viewed as attacking China’s identity, clarificatory statements from the state are far from robust. Official attempts to quell misleading posts against Thunberg, for example, are not as evident.
Annie Lab tried as much as possible to capture this tension and idiosyncrasy in China’s climate misinformation, a tension that is only expected to evolve and, unlike books, not disappear anytime soon.
Purple Romero is a supervising editor at Annie Lab, a fact-checking project based at the University of Hong Kong