Disinformation and Censorship Skew Debate Over Fukushima Wastewater Release

Chinese debate over Japan’s release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has thus far been characterized by disinformation, nationalism, and heavy online censorship. This in turn has fueled fear and uncertainty among the Chinese public, leading to an uptick in anti-Japanese sentiment, harassment and crank-calling of Japanese businesses at home and abroad, government and consumer boycotts of various Japanese products, and the panic-purchasing and hoarding of salt (erroneously believed to protect against radiation exposure) by some Chinese consumers. 

The recent wave of anti-Japanese harassment prompted Japan’s Foreign Ministry to describe the incidents as “extremely regrettable and worrisome,” and to summon the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo last week to complain. The harassment hasn’t escalated to the levels seen in the anti-Japanese protests of 2005, when China-based Japanese businesses were vandalized and Japanese nationals in China attacked, or in 2012, when a territorial dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) led to angry mobs attacking Japanese businesses and Japanese cars in a number of Chinese cities. In the 2012 attacks, a Chinese citizen named Li Jianli, who was targeted simply for driving a Japanese car, was dragged from his vehicle and brutally beaten with a bicycle lock, resulting in long-term disability. In recent years, there have been a number of smaller incidents that hint at the currents of anti-Japanese sentiment lying below the surface of Chinese society: a young Chinese woman detained for wearing a kimono in Suzhou; Japanese festivals in China being canceled due to an unrelated controversy; and an outpouring of glee on Chinese social media over Shinzo Abe’s 2022 assassination

Following the initial release of treated wastewater on August 24, the Chinese government imposed a full ban on imports of Japanese seafood products, prompting Japan to suggest it may take World Trade Organization (WTO) action in response to the ban. But for months, Chinese official and state media have been laying the groundwork for a coordinated campaign to spread disinformation about the safety of the release and paint Japan as an irresponsible international actor—despite the fact that most scientific experts and an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) task force, which includes Chinese scientists, concluded that the process would have a minimal effect on human health and the environment. The intensity of the propaganda campaign suggests that the Chinese government’s opposition to the wastewater release has more to do with domestic politics and geopolitical gamesmanship than with concerns about public health. Engaging in a bit of Japan-bashing offers the Chinese Communist Party a chance to portray itself as a bulwark against foreign oppression and intrusion, and offer the public some catharsis and distraction from China’s current economic downturn.

In contrast with the intensely nationalistic, anti-Japanese content that has been allowed to flourish on Chinese social media, many relatively dry, informative scientific articles explaining the issues surrounding the Fukushima wastewater disposal have been targeted for deletion by censors. This is in line with a long-running crackdown on Chinese popular science websites and blogs that has resulted in a shrinking number of independent scientific voices, and allowed disinformation and misinformation to proliferate online.

CDT Chinese editors have archived a number of recently censored articles covering a range of topics related to the Fukushima wastewater release. One deleted Weibo post by tech blogger @纽太普同学 (Niǔtàipǔ tóngxué, “New Type Classmate”) is titled “Back Then, We Hoarded Salt Because of Nuclear Radiation; 12 Years Later, We’re Hoarding It Because of Nuclear-Polluted Wastewater.” In it, the author bemoans the persistence of misinformation and scientific illiteracy, debunks the mistaken belief that iodized salt can stand in for potassium iodide as protection against radiation exposure, and urges readers to exhibit common sense and avoid stockpiling table salt. Also deleted was a lengthy, well-argued essay by Zhihu user @托斯卡尼尼 (Tuōsīkǎníní, “Toscanini”), who points out the incoherence of the Chinese government accusing Japan of polluting China’s fishing waters while also insisting that no matter what, Chinese seafood would remain safe to eat. The author further notes that the Chinese government, while complaining loudly for the benefit of a domestic audience, has failed to lodge any sort of official complaint about Japan’s plan with the relevant multilateral international institutions. The author likens the furor over Fukushima’s wastewater to the controversy over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, with both exemplifying the Chinese government’s tendency to stake out extreme positions that are hard to “walk back from” later. 

Two other deleted articles were penned by WeChat user Y博 (Y bó), an immunology researcher with a Ph.D. in genetics who published many informative articles about COVID-19 and vaccines during the pandemic. The first article is a lengthy and detailed exegesis, illustrated with graphs and charts, of the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) being used to remove radioactive contaminants (apart from tritium) from Fukushima’s wastewater before it is released into the ocean. The second is a compilation of reference material from the IAEA containing details about the Fukushima wastewater release, the underlying science, and plans for long-term monitoring of water safety and quality. The article concludes with the following appeal to reason:

A healthy society needs to learn to respect science and allow the voices of reason to drown out the clamor of conspiracy theories. I hope that with regard to the discharge of ALPS-treated nuclear wastewater from Fukushima, we can do as the IAEA advises—that is, base our understanding of the issue on science and verified facts. [Chinese]

One censored article that drew a lot of public attention came from the WeChat public account Liu Su’s World of Science and Technology. Liu Su, a senior engineer tasked with public science education at the Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden, is known for his frank, logical, and informative articles on a variety of scientific topics. In one delightful piece, “A Brief Analysis of the Most Common Verbal Tricks in the Discourse about Japan’s Nuclear Wastewater Discharge,” Liu Su dissects and attacks the logical fallacies used by some “little pinks” when railing against Japan. But after someone called a public hotline to complain about his WeChat article “Regarding the Issue of Japan’s Discharge of Nuclear Wastewater,” Liu deleted the article and issued a public apology. The anonymous complainant, Liu noted, “attached a screenshot of the full text of the article from my official account, as well as another screenshot in which he marked, in thick red pen, the parts he thought were inappropriate.” The following is a translated passage from Liu Su’s now-deleted WeChat article:

Undoubtedly, because both China and South Korea suffered invasion by Japan during World War II, their hatred of Japan solidified into post-war nationalist narratives. This, to a large extent, determines mainstream public and government attitudes in these two countries towards Japan’s nuclear wastewater emissions. In this type of nationalist narrative, Japan is always guilty and will never be truly forgiven. Any criticism of Japan is reasonable and just. […] No matter what kind of nuclear wastewater discharge method Japan proposes, they must oppose it. In the end, they don’t feel the need to show any concern for Japan at all, or care whether that country lives or dies […]. [Chinese]

This is not the first time that Liu Su has grappled with censorship. In 2021, he pondered the increasing politicization of science and the consequences of shuttering so many popular science accounts, leaving the public without access to solid, reliable, scientific sources of information:

As Dr. Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University once said, nowadays when we talk about history, we talk about politics. Actually, it goes far beyond history: when we talk about science, we talk about politics. And if you don’t talk about politics, it doesn’t matter if you’re the Science Squirrel Club (科学松鼠会) or PaperClip (回形针), you will be smashed under the iron fist of the people. A few years ago, this was inconceivable, but history moves fast. You can’t help but wonder, what will things be like a few years from now?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that, while pop science stories like “why is the ocean blue” and “how many parts are there to the Chinese space station” are ubiquitous, any challenge to a narrative that has risen to the level of folk belief is unlikely to survive. “Yuan Longping made sure the Chinese people never went hungry” is one such simple belief. If you challenge this, people will keep reporting your article until it disappears, and your Weibo account will be put in a little dark room for 15 days. After that, who knows, maybe they’ll put you in a little dark room for 15 days. [Source]

There has also been an outpouring of online public comments in response to articles and posts, both censored and uncensored, about the Fukushima wastewater issue. CDT Chinese editors have compiled and archived some of these comments, several of which are translated and contextualized below.

“New phrase I learned today: ‘Combatting public speech is a greater priority than combatting tritium.'”
—Zhihu user 晚春的风 (Wǎnchūn de fēng, “Late Spring Breeze”), commenting on Netease News’ account being banned on Bilibili for a bleakly humorous post that urged users to “lie flat” and avoid marriage, children, homeownership, and ambition in response to the Fukushima wastewater discharge [Chinese]

“For the past two years, we were also the only ones fighting the pandemic, while other countries did nothing about it. Go, China, go!!”
—Zhihu user ZHs8Lj, in response to the question: “Nuclear-contaminated wastewater is being discharged into the ocean, so why aren’t other countries doing anything about it?” [Chinese]

“Are lockdowns, quarantines, and zero-COVID measures a political issue or a scientific issue?”
—A now-deleted comment from Zhihu user 文刀3 (Wéndāo 3), in response to the question: “Is the discharge of nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the ocean a political issue or a scientific issue?” [Chinese]

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Economic Daily only got one thing right: fish have no nationality. If there is nuclear contamination, then seafood must not be eaten. If there isn’t nuclear contamination, then someone is lying.”
—A now-deleted comment from Zhihu user wavez tan, commenting on the Economic Daily article “Don’t Allow Japanese Nuclear-Contaminated Wastewater to Inflict Collateral Damage on Chinese Seafood.” The specious argument in that article—that Japan is contaminating Chinese fishing waters with nuclear discharge, but Chinese seafood is still safe to eat—led another netizen to joke, “Fish caught in Chinese waters have such good political awareness that they instinctively know to avoid nuclear wastewater pollution!” [Chinese]

“Yesterday, my friends were posting a lot of articles about Japanese nuclear wastewater. Half of the articles informed me that the outlook was dire, and the other half informed me not to worry. I took a brief nap and when I woke up, half of the articles couldn’t be opened [because they had been censored].”
—Weibo user 押沙龙 (Yāshālóng), commenting on the fact that Chinese social media sites have been censoring more balanced coverage of the wastewater issue while allowing more alarmist interpretations to prevail [Chinese]

“Each generation has its own crop of ‘Japanese devils,’ and each generation has its own anti-Japanese ‘assignment.’”
—Zhihu user 小小王 (Xiǎoxiǎo Wáng), responding to the question: “Regarding Chinese Customs Suspending All Imports of Japanese Marine Products, What Sort of News Should We Be Paying Attention To?” [Chinese]

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