When writing an obituary there is one question above all others that must be factually established: Has the subject in fact died? It is a basic rule of thumb that CGTN, China’s international English-language cable TV news service, and many other state media outlets, fumbled badly on Saturday as they issued premature reports of the death of the celebrated agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), known for his development of high-yield rice varieties.

Yuan, 90, in fact did pass away at around 1 p.m. Beijing time, but this was many hours after CGTN reported through its official Weibo account that the scientist had died in Changsha at the age of 91. Later this morning, after the CGTN report set off a wave of copycat coverage, Yuan’s personal secretary confirmed that he had been unwell, but said he remained in the hospital for treatment.

Yuan Longping
A Weibo post from CGTN on Saturday reported that celebrated agronomist Yuan Longping had passed away.

Within several hours, CGTN had removed the original story, seen below with its 404 error and remaining search result on Google, and the network had issued a public apology.

Yuan Longping

The fake news travelled rapidly that morning, picked up by numerous official news outlets and other channels. Below is a screenshot of a report from Phoenix News, citing as a source a subsidiary publication of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), China Television News (中国电视报).

Yuan Longping
A soaring tribute to Yuan Longping, from CCTV’s China Television News, is shared by Phoenix News.

The China Television News tribute struck an emotional tone, emphasizing love and dedication to the country:

An old man with the heart of a child, and with a childhood dream. His love for this land was profound, and he was a faithful watcher of the rice fields!

 We offer our tribute, in memory!

Sites across the Chinese internet pounced on the fake news, and even for a time the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia included a date of death for Yuan’s entry, while the English-language Wikipedia continued to list the scientist as alive.

Yuan Longping
EqualOcean, an investment research platform, was also caught in the fake news trap, passing along the news of Yuan Longping’s death, and then deleting the article, which remains in Google results.

Shortly after the news began spreading like wildfire, Eastday, the national news portal based in Shanghai, reported, citing Hunan’s provincial propaganda department, that the news of Yuan’s death was in fact fake news. The simple message in the header read: “[Propaganda Department of the Hunan Provincial Committee: #YuanLongpingPassingIsFakeNews#] (湖南省委宣传部: #袁隆平去世为假信息#).

Yuan Longping
A Weibo post by Eastday cites the Hunan provincial propaganda department calling the news of Yuan Longping’s death “fake news.”

This story – about fake news disseminated through state media outlets about a celebrated figure in China’s agricultural development – for a time became the real story. Here is that story through Southern Metropolis Daily, shared via Sohu.com.

Yuan Longping

The source for the Southern Metropolis Daily story was the official People’s Daily, citing once again Hunan’s propaganda department. The authorities, clearly were working overtime to reverse an embarrassing case of state-driven fake news.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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david bandurski

David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.