26 September 2023
In-depthSpecial Report

Special report: Narratives that drive climate misinformation in China

Fat-shaming, memories of dynasties, and green technology conspiracy: in this special report, Annie Lab examines the narratives behind misleading claims about climate change in China.

Executive summary

For this special report, we collected over a hundred posts from Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Douyin, Xigua, Baidu, Sohu, Sogou, Bilibili, WeChat, and others during the period of September 2022 to April 2023.

We focused on social media posts, articles and videos from 2012 onwards, but we also included anything we could find online that was posted before 2012. We also supplemented the dataset with similar bogus claims in the Chinese language that spread elsewhere outside of China’s Great Firewall.

Our goal was to explore what drives climate misinformation in China. In the process, we identified distinctive narratives that seem to unite the downright falsehood and misunderstanding of climate science, all of which, interestingly, stem from Chinese national identity in one way or another.

Our key findings indicate the following:

  • The national discourse surrounding climate change drastically shifted around 2012, coinciding with the change in the state’s view on the topic. The climate crisis was seen as a tool by “the West” to prevent China’s growth until then. It was replaced by the notion that the crisis is real and, therefore, developing green technology is a great business opportunity for the country.

  • Almost any criticism of China by other countries and environmental activists is seen as having ulterior motives. Persistent misinformation about Greta Thunberg and subsequent vitriol reactions attacking her for something she did not do or say illustrates the historical mistrust of “the West” and “its puppets” vividly.

  • The same conspiratorial rhetoric about “the West” conjuring up the climate crisis to suppress China’s growth is now used against the country. Internationally, misleading claims about China making up the crisis to sell green technology and hold other countries “hostage” is a recurring narrative.

  • One intriguing narrative that emerged in the research was that rising temperatures can be proven beneficial to the prosperity of the country, which is presumably supported by China’s long history of various dynasties and historical climate data gathered by a Chinese meteorologist almost half a century ago. Although the authorities refuted such claims, the sentiment of national pride seems to drive the narrative to resurface occasionally.

  • Common climate misinformation in the English language also appears in the Chinese language on platforms outside the Great Firewall. They can be as misguided and influential; the Epoch Times and its sister media outlets periodically disseminate false claims, but they are not as frequently fact-checked.

In the following sections, we first look at the historical development of climate change skepticism and misinformation in China.

We then investigate some of the distinctive narratives we identified through the more recent social media posts we gathered.

Introduction: China’s climate skepticism and misinformation

There is nothing new about the assertions that climate change is a hoax in China.

In 2010, for example, the popular evening TV show “Larry’s Eyes on Finance,” hosted by its firebrand commentator, Larry Lang Hsien-ping, aired an episode entitled “Climate Change Great Swindle,” a provocative name akin to the controversial 2007 British documentary “Great Global Warming Swindle.”

In this episode, Lang, a University of Pennsylvania-educated economist, said that Western nations “manufactured the climate myth without any scientific integrity.”

The ideas expressed in the show were toeing the line of the political conversations in the country at the time. In the same year, China’s top negotiator on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, reportedly said in a meeting with government officials from India, Brazil and South Africa that more research would be needed to determine the causes of climate change.

Xie’s remarks cast doubt on the established scientific findings that human activities contributed to alarming levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate journalist Geoff Dembicki wrote in 2017 that China’s involvement in the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen climate change negotiations, where parties failed to come up with a legally-binding agreement to limit emissions, was a prelude to the country’s political stance at the time.

Environmental activist Mark Lynas castigated China for the results in a scathing article then. He said China “wrecked” the Copenhagen negotiations by allegedly arguing that emission reductions targets set by the countries themselves should not be included in the deal.

Dembicki noted that the origin of climate skepticism in China was evident even five decades ago.

According to his article, renowned Chinese meteorologist Zhu Kezhen, also known as Chu Co-ching, argued in the early 1970s that global temperature had increased and decreased in the last 5,000 years due to “natural fluctuations,” diverging from the findings of his Western counterparts.

Even then, Zhu’s “findings” were already at odds with studies by many scientists who looked into the role of greenhouse gas emissions as one of the key contributing factors to climate change.

John Chung-En Liu, associate professor of sociology at the National Taiwan University, analyzed such narratives in his 2015 paper titled “Low carbon plot: Climate change skepticism with Chinese characteristics.” 

He pointed out that various books published from 2008 to 2011 exemplified the distinctive nationalistic sentiments behind the public conversation.

They delved into the idea that imposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions would hold back China’s further industrial growth; the findings by the Chinese authors also cast doubt on the effectiveness of prioritizing emission reduction measures.

Books called “In the Names of CO2: The Global Struggle Behind the Low-Carbon Hoax (以碳之名:低碳骗局幕后的全球博弈),” “Low-Carbon Plot: The Life-and-Death Battle Between China and the West (低碳阴谋:一场大国发起假环保之名的新经济战争),” and “The Empire of Carbon Brokers: Carbon Capitalism and Our Bible (碳客帝国:碳资本主义和我們的圣经)” all framed climate change as a political weapon wielded by the West to thwart China’s rise, according to the study.

Skepticism about climate change is largely fuelled by the idea that it is a Western plot to derail China’s economic expansion. The skeptics say the fear of climate change is a conspiracy by the West to intimidate developing countries, including China.

However, since 2012, such books and many other materials espousing climate skepticism have “disappeared” from the Chinese media, according to Dembicki, mirroring the state and public officials’ stance on the issue that had drastically changed then.

A 2012 survey in China, for example, showed 93 percent of respondents believed climate change was happening, while 89 percent said the government should tackle climate change head-on.

The shift became clear under Xi Jinping, who became president in 2013. Today, China plays a significant role and responsibility in limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius as the nation accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and emits about 27 percent of the global carbon dioxide.

The country is also a dominant player in the shift to renewable energy, being a major source of electric vehicles, photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. Xi said at the UN General Assembly in September 2020 that China would “aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” 

Over the years, China’s strict censorship mechanism seems to have eradicated outright climate skepticism from the mainstream media and public conversations while pushing stories about the country’s new roles in global efforts.

However, Chinese social media is still rife with misinformation about climate change, although it is less prevalent than misinformation about politics, health or security issues. Climate change misinformation in China is shaped by its rising tide of nationalistic sentiments and pride, coupled with scientifically unsubstantiated assumptions. Annie Lab has investigated many such false and misleading claims in the past.

Attacks on Greta Thunberg

Doctored photos of Swedish climate advocate Greta Thunberg purportedly gaining weight are recurring viral images all over the world, and Chinese-language social media is not an exception. Our fact-checking project revealed how such manipulated images were created a couple of times in the past.

Internationally, the outspoken environmentalist is often the target of personal attacks by climate skeptics. Still, in China, the context surrounding fake images of Thunberg goes beyond uncouth mockery, as Thunberg is seen as a tool or “a puppet” of the Western powers.

For example, this article published on Sohu on Feb. 3, 2023, calls Thunberg “a 17-year-old Swedish princess who urged Chinese people to stop using chopsticks.” It portrays her as someone who does not understand how chopsticks are made of wood, bamboo, or metal, implying that they are not for one-off consumption.

Several fact-checking organizations such as AFP, Snopes and Reuters, among others, have looked into this and similar claims since 2020 and have found no record of Thunberg ever saying such a thing. The teenage climate activist herself has also denied ever making this remark. But this zombie claim is persistent in China.

Even when an article on Tencent’s news portal questioned if Thunberg had ever made such a statement, many users in the comment section indicated that they believed she did.

Thunberg became the subject of criticism on Weibo in May 2021 after she tweeted, “Yes, China is still categorized as a developing nation by WTO, they manufacture a lot of our products and so on. But that’s of course no excuse for ruining future and present living conditions. We can’t solve the climate crisis unless China drastically changes course.”

It was a reaction to a CNN news report about China’s annual emissions that exceeded those of all developed nations combined. While she followed up with another tweet blaming historical emissions by the developed nations and also mentioned “emissions per capita,” presumably acknowledging China’s population size, which is more than the population of all developed countries combined, her comment seemed to have crossed China’s red line.

Screenshot of Thunberg’s tweet

Chen Weihua, China Daily’s Europe bureau chief, replied to her tweet urging Thunberg’s PR team to “educate her more,” for instance. Even though China’s population is twice as big as that of OECD countries put together, Chen argued, it had lower per capita emissions.

He claimed some OECD countries relocated their emission-heavy industries to China and also tweeted that he could not believe Thunberg was “defending developed countries which were the largest emitters for 2 centuries.”

The Global Times published an opinion piece on May 9, two days after Thunberg’s tweet, that said she lacked the knowledge to understand climate policies and, therefore, is prone to political manipulation.

It also misleadingly criticized her for pointing the finger at China’s need to cut emissions while ignoring Japan’s decision to release treated water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. In fact, Thunberg did share the news about Japan’s plan on Twitter when it was announced in the previous month.

About a week after the state-controlled media denounced her, Annie Lab spotted and debunked Chinese social media posts of her photoshopped “weight gain” image. Criticism of Thunberg continued throughout May, sometimes with the debunked fake images.

China Daily re-posted a blog article from a WeChat account accusing her of only seeing content “that caters to what Western politicians want to see.” The article further attacked Thunberg for supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.

“What is the relationship between Gangdu (Hong Kong pro-independence camp) and environmental protection?” the article questioned.

“Of course, there is a relationship; they are just different pawns used by Western politicians to cause trouble for developing countries. When Gangdu hinders the development of the largest developing country, the princess of environmental protection does not want to be outshined and want to join too!’” it added.

The state-sanctioned criticisms of Thunberg, which sometimes incorporate downright misinformation about her and her actions, are often not related to the science of climate change per se. They hinge on the perception that the West uses her as a tool to drive its agenda against China.

In a paper titled “Why Climate Change Has Been Ignored: A Chinese Perspective”, published on May 23, 2022, authors Gao Huaiwei and Zhan Jingqiu said criticism against Thunberg reflected China’s distrust in the “carbon system.”

“For most Chinese netizens, the notion that ‘development is the absolute principle,’ an idea put forward by former CPC Secretary-General [sic] Deng Xiaoping, is deeply rooted in their understanding of China’s national priorities,” they wrote.1

In the ongoing narrative shift, climate change is no longer seen as a myth created by the West. Instead, China is seen as at the forefront of the global efforts. The underlying message is that the country has done a lot to protect the environment and continues to address the crisis, which the West does not recognize or intentionally ignores.

  1. Deng Xiaoping never served as the general secretary of the CPC. However, he was then referred as the paramount leader (最高领导人) of the country, an informal term for the most powerful political figure in China

Green technology conspiracy

One of the specific claims often included in the old narrative was that the West was trying to sell green technology to the third world by pushing the climate agenda. According to Liu’s paper, a book titled “Low Carbon War: The Transformation of the 4th Industrial Revolution” by Deng Guangchi in 2011 is a good example of this sentiment.

“Because developing countries do not have leading new energy technology, in the end, they have to spend an enormous amount of money to purchase it from the European Union. When every country uses nuclear, solar, and wind technology, Europe then realizes its goal of becoming a global power. It all looks so ‘spontaneous’,” the author lamented, as quoted by Liu.

Today, however, China is one of the biggest manufacturers of clean energy technologies. It dominates the list of green tech companies around the world. Along with this change came a new narrative that turned the table. The country is now seen as taking advantage of the crisis and putting the economy first with supposed inefficient or inferior green products.

Perhaps one of the most notorious examples is the claim made by then-U.S. President Donald Trump on Nov. 6, 2012. He said the climate crisis was “created” for China to make U.S. companies less competitive. Although he later described it as a joke, EU Factcheck reported how inaccurate such conspiratorial thinking can be when it comes to climate change.

Screenshot of Trump’s tweet

Of course, such a narrative is not commonly detected inside the heavily-censored Great Firewall, but outside of China, misinformation about China’s clean energy technology abounds, including many social media posts in the Chinese language.

For example, a tweet claimed in March 2023 that an alleged Chinese-made electric vehicle exploded while being charged, with a video clip showing a car explosion. The user wrote in Chinese sarcastically that domestically manufactured electric vehicles were “weak” in other aspects, but their “explosive power” was very strong.

Various media organizations, including the Australian Associated Press, Boom India, and USA Today, fact-checked this video. They all found that the exploded car was not an electric vehicle but a Chevrolet Nexia 3 that runs on compressed natural gas. The explosion happened in Uzbekistan in February 2023.

It should be noted that it is a known fact that some electric vehicles manufactured by Chinese automakers and also others, have indeed caught fire in the past. Many companies in China were rightly criticized for prioritizing cost-effectiveness over quality and safety, which is presumably the reason why tweets like the above gain traction.

A Chinese tweet in July 2022 with a video showing a broken wind turbine blade is another good example of this underlying narrative. It did not explicitly mention China, but users assumed the windmill was built by a Chinese manufacturer, with the most-liked tweet in the thread describing it as a “tofu dreg project,” a Chinese metaphor for shoddy work.

China is indeed one of the world’s powerhouses in manufacturing wind turbines, and the users’ assumptions align with the prevalent new narrative. Even though the original tweet did not mention China and the video’s authenticity has not been verified, the reactions fit the typical formula behind many similar posts.

Prosperity under rising temperatures

Another conspicuous narrative that emerged from our research has a historical spin. It is an assertion that Chinese dynasties enjoyed longer prosperity under warmer temperatures, often referencing the aforementioned preliminary study by Chinese meteorologist Zhu Kezhen, which also raised the same observation.

A WeChat article on Aug. 9, 2021, for instance, said the Qin and Han dynasties, as well as the Sui and Tang dynasties, were “the most prosperous,” and they developed “within a cycle of significant rising temperatures.”

The underlying belief is that rising temperature was beneficial to those dynasties because it brought more rainfall. It implies global warming could benefit China.

A similar claim was posted on the online video-sharing platform Xigua on April 25, 2021. It said, among others, that during the Han and Tang dynasties’ relatively warmer climate, the society was “relatively more stable and prosperous” and vice versa.

An article posted on Bilibili on June 6, 2022, also said periods of prosperity tend to happen under warm temperatures.

This narrative caught the attention of the authorities, and it has been refuted by experts in the country. The China Environment News, the official media outlet of China’s Ministry of
Ecology and Environment, published an article on Aug. 16, 2021, quoting Zhang Chengyi, a researcher at the National Climate Center of the China Meteorological Administration, explaining the complexity of the relationship between the increase in atmospheric temperature near the surface and the change in rainfall.

The article pointed out many other factors that affect the weather and concluded that such claims are not scientifically substantiated.

The article also cited Zhou Tianjun, a Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Atmospheric Physics researcher who said that a temperature increase would not necessarily result in better harvests. In fact, it was the accelerating temperature rise in northwestern China that led to latent evapotranspiration, Zhou said.

The drying trend brought by the temperature rise has been consistent with the persistent droughts observed in Ningxia, Shanxi and Gansu regions in 2021, according to the CNE article.

Fan Ka-Wai, an associate professor at the Department of Chinese and History, City University of Hong Kong, also addressed similar claims in his 2014 paper, “Climate change and Chinese history: a review of trends, topics, and methods.”

In the article, Fan wrote that “historical events often take place over a short period while climate change is gradual and measured in centuries.” He asked rhetorically, “in how many cases can we reasonably suggest that climate change was a primary cause for the decline of a dynasty?”

China Dialogue, an organization that focuses on reporting environmental issues in China, wrote that the above claims and the consequent rebuttal “provides a snapshot of the state of confusion in Chinese society about climate change.”

It added that tension would always exist between a “climate-enlightened” leadership and a climate-agnostic public that usually just goes along with the former’s policy initiatives without asking too many questions.

Skeptics’ narratives in greater China

As mentioned earlier, denials of the scientific consensus that climate change is largely caused by anthropogenic activities are not as preponderant, ubiquitous or palpable on Chinese social media.

But it does not mean they are nowhere to be seen. For example, an article posted on WeChat on Feb. 13, 2021, called global warming a hoax after NASA supposedly acknowledged that it was caused by the changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

It is a false claim as NASA also stated that while the Sun can affect the Earth’s climate, “it isn’t responsible for the warming trend we’ve seen over recent decades.” Meanwhile, China Youth Daily, citing authorities from the National Space Weather Forecasting Station of the China Meteorological Administration, also debunked another claim about solar activity supposedly causing extreme weather events.

Naturally, climate skeptics and deniers have a bigger presence outside of the Great Firewall. Their content in the Chinese language on popular platforms like Facebook and YouTube sometimes goes viral.

A YouTube video posted on Feb. 1, 2023, which was viewed over 7,000 times before the account’s termination, could be a good case in point. It falsely claimed volcanic eruptions emit more carbon dioxide than human activities do.

A discussion on a popular web forum in Hong Kong, LIHKG, is another example. It repeated the false claim that climate change is a natural cycle and, therefore, the Earth will enter the ice age again regardless of what people do, which has been refuted by the Hong Kong Observatory.

One of the frequent disseminators of narratives questioning climate change in the Chinese language outside of China is the media outlet Epoch Times and its sister organizations.

The New York-based news outlet is associated with Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has been banned and labeled as a “heretical cult” by the Chinese authorities. The movement was founded by Li Hongzhi in China and spread overseas, with its network owning dozens of media companies in multiple languages around the world, including the Epoch Times.

For example, an article published on May 6, 2021,repeated a claim that echoed in length a 2018 opinion piece written by Pat Michaels and Ryan Maue who worked for the now-defunct Center for the Study of Science, a program under the Cato Institute that raised uncertainty about climate science even though such a claim has been refuted by many experts since.

Another Epoch Times article published on Aug. 27, 2022, said around 1,100 scientists signed a declaration saying “there is no climate emergency.” Taiwanese fact-checking organization MyGoPen has looked into this and discussed how various fact-checkers around the world, including Annie Lab, have worked together to investigate the background of the signatories. The investigation said only 10 out of the 1,000 were climate scientists.

Yet another article posted on Jan. 19, 2023, carried the claim that plants are “designed” to live in an environment with high carbon emissions. Annie Lab debunked a similar claim circulating in English in the past, but as is often the case, the article translated a debunked climate claim and regurgitated it in Chinese.

Although the Falun Gong-affiliated media network is known for its penchant for false equivalence, a tendency to give equal space to evidence-based science and unsubstantiated opinions, the network’s Chinese content has been less scrutinized among misinformation researchers. 

Our research indicates that many of the climate skeptics’ claims featured in Epoch Times’s coverage seem to have been unchecked.


Comparatively speaking, in China, climate change is not a subject that is as heavily discussed as in other parts of the world. The strict censorship and heavy-handed content moderations on social media make it hard to gauge the extent to which relevant misinformation spreads.

A 2023 article by researchers Chuxuan Liu and Jeremy Wallace for Environmental Research Communications indicated that “climate change discourse remains niche on Weibo, almost never even reaching the trending topics list.”

But observers say it has not “disappeared” even though the climate skepticism, which was rampant until 2011, no longer appears in the mainstream media or trends on social media.

“I don’t think this thing will ever go away,” John Chung-En Liu told Annie Lab in an interview on March 6, 2023. While he emphasized that he “has no evidence [of how] prevalent” it is, he said it could be conspicuous in the age of the internet.

“As you study online ecosystems, some minor voices can be very visible or can be very loud in our current algorithm,” he said.

John Chung-En Liu’s recent paper published by PLOS Climate reports on the result of national surveys in 2009 and 2016 people in China had a higher awareness of climate change. A majority of them believed climate change had been driven by human activities.

However, other surveys conducted by the China Center for Climate Change Communication had lower figures. It showed only 55 percent of the respondents believed climate change is anthropogenic in 2012, though that ratio increased to 66 percent in 2017.

Our research indicates that in China, what is consistent behind climate misinformation is the macro perspective narratives that connect nationalistic sentiments to this particular topic.

China’s climate reporting, in general, is quite focused on international negotiations, renewable energy competition, and governmental policies on mitigation. How climate change affects people’s daily lives is not given much attention.

The narratives constructed with the institutional framework, as opposed to personal stories, tend to pit China against developed countries, as observed by the academics who wrote a paper titled “National prisms of a global phenomenon: A comparative study of press coverage of climate change in the US, UK and China.” 

National identity is at the core of misinformation narratives. Attacks against those perceived to be “disciples” of the West with mockeries and bogus claims vividly illustrate this tendency, such as what Thunberg experienced.

In China, once a dominant discourse that the West invented the climate crisis to prevent China’s growth subsided. But internationally, those who criticize China have flipped and adopted the same conspiratorial rhetoric, saying climate change is concocted to support the country’s thriving clean energy technology sector, a political plot to counter the West.

Climate change could be “beneficial” to China is an interesting narrative that recently gained popularity, which was also supported by nationalistic pride with questionable outdated climate studies by a Chinese meteorologist and a long history of the country’s dynasties.

Wu Yixiu, a former climate journalist with China Dialogue, said in an online interview on March 24, 2023, that this kind of misinformation gained traction because it reflected China’s aspirations for “rejuvenation.”

“I think it is more of a narrative to use misinformation about climate change to fill in China’s rise from a historic perspective. It fits into a wider narrative about China’s rejuvenation,” she said.

Both Liu and Wu shared the view that since it is not as prominent or widespread, the Chinese government might not see the need to actively censor or clamp down on climate misinformation the same way they treat political or human rights dissents.

Meanwhile, outside of the Great Firewall, climate misinformation in the Chinese language is ubiquitous on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Bitchute, and Rumble. The Epoch Times and its sister publications are other common avenues for false or misleading claims to spread.

For this special report, we collected and analyzed climate misinformation on Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Douyin, Xigua, Baidu, Sohu, Sogou, Bilibili, WeChat, and others, from September 2022 to April 2023. We supplemented the dataset with similar claims in Chinese that were disseminated elsewhere.

We have identified distinctive narratives that seem to form the backbones of various types of climate misinformation, mainly circling around ideological (or patriotic, rather) and emotional aspects of the public sentiments.

The global effort for sustainable growth with renewable energy has given ample business opportunities for China. Many Chinese green technology companies are dominating this field at the moment.

Our research did not detect any obvious signs of coordinated disinformation campaigns that have successfully manipulated online conversations during the said period.

But with so many financial and geopolitical gains at stake, many stakeholders with varying motivations have incentives to insinuate certain narratives surrounding climate change to their advantage.

It is a worthwhile topic for fact-checking organizations and media scholars to keep monitoring.

[Acknowledgment: This research was made possible with the support of Meedan’s Check Global Media Response Fund]