26 September 2023

China’s about-face on forest conservation policy breeds a tirade of misinformation 

Annie Lab investigated a series of questionable claims about the so-called “return forests to farmland” policy.

China recently shifted away from the popular forests conservation program and introduced a policy to cultivate more farmland in order to boost food security.

The move began with a central government announcement last October to suspend the 1999 landmark ecological recovery project, which is seen by observers as reversing 20 years of forest conservation progress.

Since April this year, Chinese social media platforms have seen an influx of agricultural-themed misinformation after local officials, including those in Sichuan and in Henan, rolled out controversial measures to scale up food security as required by the State Council in February.

Annie Lab investigated some of such viral posts published in April and May and found manipulated photos, misleading videos allegedly showing deforestation, and other unsubstantiated claims.

False: Image of farmers outside shopping mall is doctored

This Twitter image posted in May purportedly shows farmers cultivating crops in front of a futuristic complex with a Chinese overlay text saying, “Seedlings are being raised in the vicinity of the Chengdu Global Centre, a renowned hub in Asia.”

The tweet claimed that the image shows the “new urban food production hub of Chengdu in the new era.”

Another tweet with the same photo claimed that the Chinese government is converting parks into farmland to grow food throughout China to curb a potential food crisis “because Xi Jinping is preparing China for war with the USA over Taiwan.”

The two tweets received over 700 likes and 150 shares as of this writing. Similar claims and the same image also circulated on China’s short video streaming platform Douyin.

However, this image was manipulated.

The location of the New Century Global Center in Chengdu, Sichuan.

Annie Lab identified the complex in the image as the New Century Global Center (新世紀環球中心) in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan.

It is located along the 100-kilometer “Tianfu Greenway” (天府綠道), a 34.1 billion yuan green infrastructure project that links parks, gardens and “ecological zones” in the city.

We examined the image in question with the visual analysis tool Forensically, which showed glitches between the building and the plants.

A clone detection revealed that several spots, including the reflection of the windows of the building and the water surface, were copied and adjusted.

Screenshots of magnified details (left) and clone detection of the Twitter image.

An Error Level Analysis (ELA) showed that the error levels of the building and the farmland are different, suggesting that this might be a composite of two different photos.

Screenshots of Error Level Analysis (ELA) of the upper part (left) and lower part of the Twitter photo.

The silver complex in the image is called An Ping Exhibition. The photo we found on its official website is identical to the image in question.

The photo shows the complex that matches the upper part of the Twitter image.

We separated the manipulated image into two parts while removing its background with Photoshop.

This allowed us to trace the origin of the lower half of the image, which turned out to be a photo published on the Chinese social media Meipian (美篇) on July 22, 2018.

The origin of the lower part of the Twitter image was found on Meipian (right)

The Meipian account appeared to belong to a secondary school girl in Jiangxi. She wrote about her family’s agricultural experience during a summer vacation.

Screenshots of various farming photos posted by the same Meipian user.

Misleading: This video is unrelated to farmland cultivation

This Twitter video posted on April 30 claims that Chinese officials uprooted trees that could be used to slow down desertification in Inner Mongolia because of the so-called “return forests to farmland” policy.

It accused the local officials of implementing measures as drastic as those “during the era of Mao Zedong.”

The video was also shared by other Twitter users (this, this and this), and has over 1,600 likes and 580 shares as of this writing.

However, the claim is misleading.

Comparison of screenshots of the video in question and the original we found on Douyin.

A search has led to a Douyin account whose content featured a similar video production style.

It uploaded a collection of geographical survey footage, although Annie Lab could not find the exact same video.

We reached out to the Douyin user, and he told us that he took and uploaded the clip in question.

The user, who wished to remain anonymous, said he is a geology surveyor and uploads work-related videos.

He said he deleted the one used in the tweet after being harassed by phone calls around the clock.

“Some said the trees were cut for coppicing so that it grows better. Others asked me to take down the video. I really didn’t know what’s going on,” the creator said in a direct message to us on Douyin, emphasizing that his work has nothing to do with government policy.

The deleted video shows no sign of this area in Inner Mongolia, which has been suffering severe deforestation, being turned into farmland.

Misleading: This video does not show ‘fake’ rice fields inspection

A Twitter video posted on May 3 implied that Chinese rural officials faked their rice field inspections in a studio “with a magical green box.”

The text on the video reads, “technology enables leaders to create more secure and realistic photos.”

This tweet has over 400 likes and 70 shares as of this writing.

Several comments echoed the sentiment. “The Agricultural Law Enforcement has accelerated purchasing such equipment,” wrote one user; “leaders do not have to inspect on-site anymore,” said another.

However, the claim is misleading. The video has nothing to do with rural management inspections.

Screenshot of the original Douyin video with the backdrop showing “Communication University of China.”

Annie Lab traced the original video to a Douyin user by following a blurred ID watermark on the footage.

The original clip, published on April 21, 2023, shows a woman introducing a green screen setup in a studio with a backdrop that reads “State Key Laboratory of Media Convergence and Communication, Communication University of China” (中國傳媒大學媒體融合與傳播國家重點實驗室).

This Douyin account uploaded other videos on April 19 and 20, 2023, featuring filming techniques and equipment in an exhibition as well.

The Twitter video in question was shot in the VSOChina (藍海創意雲) booth during the 29th China Content Broadcasting Network held in Beijing.

Screenshot comparisons of the original Douyin video with the photo from VSOChina’s press release.

The press release by VSOChina, the company hosting the booth, featured the same woman introducing the Metaverse virtual broadcast setup.

Chinese authorities have deployed agricultural management teams, known as “nongguan” (農管), to inspect grain production, according to some media reports by VOA, RFI and China Observer.

The practice of “nongguan” has been linked to China’s new food production goal. Farmers’ Daily reported that China has recently initiated the 2023 national agricultural enforcement action to ensure the country’s food supply.