(Above: A screen shot of an image posted to a popular online forum showing the cloud of smoke rising above East Palestine, Ohio, with the caption warning of threats to residents as far away as New York.)
In mid-February, Sharon Xue received a message on WeChat from a worried cousin in China. Wear a mask and only drink bottled water, the message read. “I thought there was another epidemic outbreak,” said Xue, who came to the U.S. to study eight years ago and now works for a nonprofit organization in New York.
But when Xue flipped through her updates, the reason for the alarming warning became clear. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that took place 11 days before had sparked a flurry of apocalyptic headlines on the popular Chinese social media platform. “New York Is Gravely Hit” or, “Epic Tragedy in U.S. Ten Thousand Tons of Cancer Causing Substance Leaked. Animals Dead. Sky Covered by Toxic Smoke.”
“I don’t believe it. But clearly some others do,” Xue said.
The February 3 derailment in East Palestine has become a major political headache for both the Biden administration and former President Trump – who cut safety and other regulations governing the rail industry during his presidency. It has led to the die-off of surrounding wildlife and has raised serious concerns around long-term health impacts for area residents.
But China’s propaganda apparatus and the sensation-chasing blog-like public accounts on WeChat known as “self-media” have painted the accident in biblical proportions, warning of devastation for all Americans and even for the future of humanity.
Barely a week after the accident, state-owned and individual accounts began churning out warnings of possible cancer outbreaks for residents as far away as New York and Canada’s Ottawa. The chemicals on the train were not radioactive but that didn’t stop some from comparing the accident to the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986.
Given the backdrop of surging tensions between the U.S. and China – tensions that were exacerbated by the Chinese surveillance balloon saga – the flood of hyperbolic and histrionic messaging has left many Chinese living in the U.S. feeling frustrated and confused.
But this isn’t the first time that headlines from the U.S. have been warped or distorted and then thrown back at American audiences. The mis- and dis-information campaign now being waged between the two nations ratcheted up considerably following Trump’s trade war with China in 2018.
At the height of the Covid pandemic, WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese counterpart to TikTok, were inundated with false or misleading stories about the disease. Themes included allegations that U.S. hospitals were throwing critically ill Covid patients out on the street, that riots had gotten out of control in the U.S., and that many large U.S. cities had become overrun by homeless people and drug addicts.
What’s different in this latest flare up is the timing. There is speculation among some online users that coverage of the Chinese spy balloon incident – which consumed headlines for days in early February – was meant to distract the public’s attention away from the disaster in East Palestine. For some, this line of reasoning fuels the belief that mainstream media in the U.S. is working in concert with the so-called “deep state.”
At a press conference on February 17, Chinese government spokesman Wang Wenbin essentially said as much, questioning why the U.S. “is able to see the balloon 18,000 meters above the ground, but seems to have been blind to the toxic mushroom cloud of vinyl chloride over Ohio?”
Alternative versions of this narrative have been taken up by both hawkish Chinese in China and conservative Chinese American supporters of Trump, a rare moment of convergence between these otherwise mutually contentious groups.
Still, amongst the noise and misdirection are rare moments of clarity and even insight, such as when one person openly admitted they were exaggerating reports of the derailment in order to highlight how U.S. media often reports on incidents in China. “I wrote a story about the Ohio leak incident in the American style,” the headline read. It quickly gathered more than 100,000 views, a threshold on WeChat for a post going viral.
Andrew H. Chen is chief learning officer of WholeRen Education, a Pittsburgh-based educational consulting company serving Chinese international students. Chen, who lives close to the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio, said he didn’t see any sign of the aftermath of the derailment, but received several messages from friends and parents of students in China concerned for his safety.
“Chinese media always exaggerate” whenever negative news breaks in the U.S. “because they are restrained from talking about China’s own domestic incidents,” Chen said.
He added the phenomenon has led to a widening chasm between Chinese students studying in the U.S. and their parents in China. “Parents think the U.S. is a very dangerous place and call for their children to go back to China immediately after graduation. But many students know it’s not true, and they would like to work in the U.S. at least for a few years to gain some experience,” said Chen. “It gets increasingly harder for Chinese students to communicate with their parents.”
That is also Xue’s frustration. “My family members in China, it’s like they see a different U.S. from the one in front of my eyes,” Xue said. “When I correct them, they say I am brainwashed. I don’t know what to say.”