Much has been written about climate misinformation in the West but there has been far less scrutiny of the problem in China – a country that is both a significant carbon emitter and a leader in developing green technology. Annie Lab, our fact-checking project at the University of Hong Kong, looked into the diverse narratives of such climate misinformation, examples of which we have encountered and verified in the past.
One thing we can say is that these narratives are deeply connected to China’s assertion of its identity and pursuit of its aspirations. China has bounced back after years of poverty, establishing itself as an economic behemoth. It takes pride in this shift and development, so any challenge to this progress – and to the image of China – is perceived as hostile. Not too long ago, that included climate change, which, from about 2009-2011, was often depicted in Chinese books and popular TV shows as a Western hoax designed to torpedo China’s economic rise. After 2011, however, the messaging changed. These books and public statements disappeared amid growing public consciousness about climate change. This forced, in some ways, the government to take the problem seriously. However, online, climate denial lives on and remains strong. From September 2022 to April 2023, we collected more than a hundred posts from Chinese video, messaging and social media platforms such as Douyin, Bilibili, Xigua, Weibo and WeChat, among others, which showed different kinds of misleading posts about climate change.
We also found similar dodgy Chinese posts on YouTube and Twitter as well as articles from The Epoch Times, a news organisation reportedly linked to Falun Gong, a religious group banned in mainland China. Our research unveiled various narratives, one of which explained the recurring manipulated images depicting Swedish activist Greta Thunberg as having gained weight. As it turned out, the doctoring of her photos to make her look that way is not an isolated case, nor is it a juvenile attempt at malicious pillory or an example of harmless mockery. A deeper look takes us back to comments by Thunberg that stirred patriotic assertions, including that she was a tool or puppet of the West. In a May 2021 tweet, Thunberg said that while China remains a developing country, it must be more conscious about its carbon emissions. She was accused of being a “selective environmentalist” because she did not comment on Japan’s plans to release nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, although she did share an article about it. Chinese online posts also said Thunberg told the Chinese people to stop using chopsticks to reduce deforestation – though there is no evidence the climate activist ever made such a statement. Tensions between China and the West have shaped another narrative, too.
If before, Chinese book authors said climate change was something the West invented so China would rely on it for green technology, now there are social media posts saying the opposite. As the Asian giant has emerged as a leading manufacturer of clean tech, it is now the target of West-based far-right conspiracy theories, too. Misleading posts were found on Twitter as well as video-sharing platforms Rumble and Bitchute suggesting that climate change is supposedly just a scam concocted by China so the West could depend on it for green technology. An offshoot of this is another strand of misinformation: The use of unverified videos on Twitter in Chinese allegedly showing Chinese-manufactured e-vehicles and wind turbines of shoddy quality. Meanwhile, other social media claims and articles have downplayed the role of man-made emissions. On YouTube, one said volcanic eruptions put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than human activities do. This has been debunked. On WeChat, a user said global warming was caused by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The United States space agency NASA has clarified that while the sun does indeed have an effect on the Earth’s climate, “it isn’t responsible for the warming trend we’ve seen over recent decades”.
Chinese experts themselves stepped in to correct some of these claims. Authorities from the National Space Weather Forecasting Station of the China Meteorological Administration debunked a claim about solar activity being the main driver behind changes in the Earth’s climate. The China Environment News, the official outlet of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, meanwhile, came out with an article that explained why, contrary to viral claims, rising temperatures will not usher in a period of prosperity for mainland China. This particular claim is very specific to China as it harks back to the Han and Tang dynasties, which were said to have experienced stability and prosperity during warmer climates. Wu Yixiu, a former climate journalist with China Dialogue, a non-profit organisation that analyses climate issues in China and has offices in London and Beijing, told us the claim resonated with the public because it mirrored China’s aspiration of “rejuvenation”.
This narrative, along with the others, reveals that climate misinformation in China is largely shaped by nationalism, a sentiment that has become more fervent under President Xi Jinping, even if the Chinese government itself has to step in at times to challenge false claims. It is not always about the science but about the story. And if the story is uncomfortable, a dose of climate misinformation is never far away.