What you need to know
Remember that story about China diverting water from Himalayan glaciers to Xinjiang? About that...
By Abigail Dawson & Matt Schrader
A proposal by a group of apparently government-linked scientists and engineers to divert water from Himalayan glaciers to the arid province of Xinjiang, in the northwest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), caught the imagination of the PRC internet after the first conference held for discussion of the project in Nov. 2017. Following the wide attention on the Chinese-language web, articles on the proposal, known as the Red Flag River Project, soon made their way into English-language media, and were picked up across the world. The proposal, which would divert enormous amounts of water northward, was greeted with particular alarm in parts of the Indian press, since Himalayan glacier melt is an important source of water for two of India’s most important rivers, and the two countries have a long history of disagreement and mistrust related to use of the region’s scarce water resources.
The proposal was, in all likelihood, a fraud perpetrated by an unscrupulous entrepreneur seeking to raise money for a lending scheme. PRC internet users, accustomed to the pervasiveness of “fake news” on the Chinese-language internet, quickly sniffed out the falsehood, and buried the Red Flag River proposal under a mountain of online skepticism. The corrected information, however, never made its way back into English-language reporting, leaving the narrative of a massive PRC water diversion project unchallenged.
This “threat inflation” dynamic, wherein misinformation about PRC engineering or technical achievements originates on the Chinese-language internet, and is spread widely and largely unchallenged by credulous foreign-language outlets, reflects a tendency of foreign media to overlook crucial background details, including whether the projects have the backing of official PRC government agencies or are actually feasible to implement. This tendency towards ‘threat inflation’ – which has also affected coverage of everything from PRC submarine propulsion breakthroughs to laser weapons – reflects a lack of China literacy among media and strategic communities in countries concerned about the PRC, and means that policymakers and analysts need to exercise even greater caution when relying on open-source media reporting for information about PRC technology and development projects.
From misinformation to false peril: A vicious cycle
The cycle of threat inflation surrounding the Red Flag River Project began with local media in the PRC. The project, directed by Wang Hua, professor at Tsinghua University and scientist at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, proposes to solve the problem of water shortage in the PRC’s northwest by diverting water from the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, Yalong and Dadu Rivers toward more arid land, thereby developing new agricultural areas and boosting the PRC economy.
Hype around the project began to build with the launch of a promotional video for the project on Nov. 1, 2017, followed soon thereafter by seminars held by a group academics and technical experts associated with the project in Nov. 2017 and Jan. 2018. The news of the project gained momentum on the Chinese-language internet as major PRC media outlets picked up on the story, commenting on the Red Flag River Project’s potential for eliminating drought in the northwest while preserving the natural ecological environment of the region.
The “threat inflation” cycle moved to its second step when English-language media picked up on the story, in most cases without going to the trouble to verify whether the project had any substantial PRC government backing. One example was an Oct. 2017 article by the South China Morning Post, which reported on the Red Flag River Project in the context of PRC plans to build an experimental water diversion tunnel in Southeast China, as a first step toward a longer tunnel running from Tibet to Xinjiang.
While the article quotes researchers involved in the proposal, such as Zhang Chuanqing of the Chinese Academy of Science, it is ambiguous as to whether the PRC government actually is involved in the project in any way. Although the Global Times, another PRC-based English-language newspaper, responded to the story two weeks later with PRC foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s denials that China was preparing for such a tunnel, the correction was spread far less widely than the initial story.
The Indian press’s response to the story demonstrated the potential geopolitical impact of such Sino-foreign “threat inflation”. Indian commentary tended to rely on the South China Morning Post story as the basis of their own reporting, rather than attempting to verify or correct the record.
When the Red Flag River Project was first announced, one Indian journalist wrote, “China is working on an incredibly ambitious water diversion project involving the Brahmaputra, one of India’s largest rivers, which may become another point of tension between the two Asian neighbors.” Even nearly a year after the PRC Foreign Ministry’s denial, major Indian newspapers continued to run credulous stories, with one outlet commenting in an article about the Red Flag River Project that “India already feels threatened by China’s projects in the Tibetan plateau to reduce river flows into India. Diversion of the Brahmaputra is an idea China does not discuss in public, because it implies devastating India’s northeastern plains and Bangladesh, either with floods or reduced water flow.”
The Indian press’s treatment of the project also reflected the final step in the threat inflation cycle: prominent foreign-language outlets’ failure to debunk or follow, even after further investigation by specialists or Chinese-language media revealed the initial information to be erroneous. In the case of the Red Flag River Project, soon after the initial surge of publicity following its announcement, scientists and academics in the PRC took to the internet to point out its physical impracticality, including its proposition for a “self-flowing water transfer” system, and its designers’ plans to build large tunnels in areas at high risk for earthquakes and landslides. Some reports noted that even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources denied having any connection to the Red Flag River Project. Other skeptics pointed out the questionable relationship between the Red Flag River project and its financier and sole sponsor, a company called “Shanlin Finance.”
Indian commentary tended to rely on the South China Morning Post story as the basis of their own reporting, rather than attempting to verify or correct the record.
As early as 2015, Shanlin – a so-called “peer-to-peer” finance company – ran into trouble with the Shanghai city government, which charged it with false advertising and suspended its operations in Oct. 2017 for violating internet lending restrictions. In April 2018, the Shanghai Police found Shanlin Finance to be responsible for luring 60 billion yuan from investors in an online P2P internet finance campaign, a discovery which led to the arrest of eight company executives, including legal representative and sole shareholder Zhou Boyun, who would later be indicted. Shanlin Finance appears to have used the Red Flag River Project to attract investment and improve its image as a high-tech, high-return charity, so as to gain the trust of elderly investors able to make large donations.
None of the English-language reporting on the project reflected these subsequent developments, or critically examined the questionable nature of the project’s backer, despite the fact that concerns emerged about Shanlin Finance as early as 2015.
Silent subs and laser guns: Threat inflation and PLA technological development
The Red Flag River Project is far from the only recent example of threat inflation. Two other instances demonstrate the same trend: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s purported deployment of a portable laser rifle, and the alleged development of a “pump-jet” propulsion system for PLA Navy (PLAN) nuclear submarines. In both instances, insufficient fact-checking and an over-reliance on misinformed news sources resulted in an exaggerated picture of PLA capabilities.
In July 2018, the South China Morning Post published a story declaring that “China has developed a new portable laser weapon that can zap a target from nearly a kilometer away,” citing researchers and laser weapons scientists involved in its manufacturing. The article speculates about the weapon’s potential use in covert military operations, linking it with complaints from U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea about laser attacks from PRC military bases and vessels. The story was almost immediately picked up by prominent Western media outlets, with alarming headlines such as “China Builds Laser Rifle That Can Remotely Set Fire to People’s Skin.”
However, a day after the SCMP story broke, C4ISRNET – an online publication targeted at U.S. defense and intelligence professionals – described the laser rifle prototype as “a dangerous gimmick at best” in an article by laser safety officer Phil Broughton, who demonstrates why the weapon described by SCMP would be physically impossible to construct safely. Outlets that had trumpeted the initial announcement generally did not follow up with reports that the miracle laser rifle was likely a fraud.
The story was almost immediately picked up by prominent Western media outlets, with alarming headlines such as ‘China Builds Laser Rifle That Can Remotely Set Fire to People’s Skin.’
A similar incident occurred with English-language reporting on the alleged invention of a “pump-jet” propulsion system for use in next-generation PLAN nuclear submarines. Such a system would be significantly quieter than traditional propellers, enabling PLAN submarines to travel largely undetected by enemy vessels. The story is largely fueled by another piece in SCMP that cited Chinese Navy Rear Admiral Ma Weiming in an interview with China Central Television in which he claimed the pump-jet propulsion system has already been installed in PLAN nuclear submarines. Had such as system actually been installed in PLAN nuclear submarines, it would have been a groundbreaking revolution in submarine technology indicating that PLAN capabilities were far ahead of the U.S. Navy, which would have huge implications for U.S. military and defense strategy.
If it weren’t enough that PRC media outlets failed to catch the mistake, the story was subsequently reported on in reputable foreign-language news sources like The National Interest, which cited SCMP and repeated the misinterpretation of the original interview with Admiral Ma.
The cycle of “threat inflation” by English-language media has important implications for U.S. policymakers, particularly those concerned with PLA technological advancements. Although government analysts and policymakers have a range of classified sources to draw on in assessing PLA capabilities and intentions, much analysis still relies heavily from open-source reporting.
A general lack of PRC literacy, especially among media and strategic communities in countries concerned about the PLA, means that policymakers and analysts need to exercise a great deal of caution and judgement when relying on open source reporting for information about PRC technology and development projects.
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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.
TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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