Fishy Tales – The disinformation surrounding the recent Taiwan-China fishing boat collision

Fishy Tales – The disinformation surrounding the recent Taiwan-China fishing boat collision

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

On February 14th, a Chinese fishing boat that had illegally entered Taiwanese waters near Kinmen Island capsized while being chased by the Taiwanese coast guards, killing two Chinese fishermen on board. While tensions between Taiwan and China soared, disinformation about the incident also took off. The majority of the disinformation pieces claimed that Chinese fishing boats were stepping up to retaliate or that the Taiwanese government attempted to hide the truth. However, according to the observation of the Taiwan FactCheck Center, these false claims were primarily directed at Chinese audiences and received little attention from Taiwanese society.

The Taiwanese government is still looking into the causes of this tragedy. However, according to media coverage, Chinese fishing boats like the one involved in this event, which lacked a formal name, ship certificate, or ship registration, frequently entered Taiwanese waters illegally, raising serious worries for the Taiwanese government.

After the incident, the Chinese government sharply criticized the Taiwanese government for “being cruel to Chinese fishermen” and “reluctant to apologize.” Moreover, the Chinese government asserted that Taiwan is a part of China and there are no so-called “prohibited waters” between China and Taiwan, which contradicts Taiwan’s position. Since then, the Chinese government has reacted unprecedently by boarding a Taiwanese tourist boat for an “inspection.” The head of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council, Kuan Bi-ling, said China’s subsequent actions had unsettled Taiwanese citizens.

While the Chinese government intensified the rhetorical attacks and actions, disinformation has circulated online. So far, the Taiwan FactCheck Center has debunked several pieces that circulated on social media, such as X, Facebook, and LINE. 

Three themes have emerged from these disinformation pieces. The first theme declared that Chinese fishermen have taken actions to “claim justice” for the fishermen who were killed or injured in the incident on February 14th. This kind of disinformation included videos that demonstrated a fleet of Chinese fishing boats surrounding Kinmen Island. Some videos even showed boats ramming into the Taiwanese coast guards’ ships. The remarks in these posts, which seemed to address Chinese audiences rather than Taiwanese, claimed, “The revenge has begun!” or “hundreds of fishing boats have surrounded Kinmen, the [Chinese] water police and the coast guard ships have activated the AIS [Automatic Identification System] signal... We don’t need to worry. Just fish. Let’s see who dares to intervene!”

On the one hand, this kind of disinformation aimed to demonstrate the Chinese fishermen’s bravery. On the other hand, it also tried to denigrate the Taiwanese coast guards by showing how weak the guards could be.  

A screenshot of a cell phoneDescription automatically generated
Figure 1 A screenshot of a disinformation piece claiming that “Fujian fishermen have besieged Kinmen to claim justice for the assaulted fishermen.”

In addition to the above narrative, the disinformation pieces also tried to portray the Taiwanese government as immoral and tainted with corruption. Two of the debunked claims asserted that Taiwanese government officials or politicians either killed Chinese fishermen for their own personal gains or tried to exploit this incident as a “lesson” to scare Chinese fishermen away from Taiwanese waters.

According to the Taiwan FactCheck Center's investigation, these videos were not filmed in February 2024 after the fishing boat collision. Instead, they were clips from TV news footage or short social media videos of past events.

One of the earliest accusations against a “corrupted Taiwanese coast guard captain” was posted to Facebook. The individual who published the post claimed to have hacked into the Taiwanese government’s data servers and discovered information about the Taiwanese captain who should be held responsible for the deaths of the two Chinese fishermen. To back up the claim, this individual provided a photo of an government document that “revealed” the captain's identity. According to the individual, the captain owned two fishing companies and struck the Chinese boat for the sake of business.  

The assertion was riddled with numerous errors. First, the government document was about a 2023 investigation into an unidentified body discovered on the shores of Kinmen. The material was available to the public on the government's website. Second, the post made a mistake in the description of Wu's work unit. Most notably, Wu did not own any fishing companies. The post confused Wu with another person who has the same name.

A screenshot of a computerDescription automatically generated
A screenshot of a Facebook post. This post incorrectly claimed that a captain named Wu Meng-je should be responsible for the incident that caused the deaths of two Chinese fishermen. 

Another false claim targeted Kuan Bi-ling, the head of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council. A screenshot of a LINE conversation between Kuan and a former legislator circulated on social media, “exposing” that the Taiwanese government tried to conceal video footage of what transpired during the collision. The comment accompanying the post claimed this screenshot disclosed the sneaky trick of the Taiwanese government, which attempted to use this incident to drive Chinese fishermen away from the waters.     

In fact, this screenshot was manipulated content based on a leaked LINE conversation between Kuan and the legislator from 2017. In the original conversation, Kuan and the legislator were discussing same-sex legislation. The information manipulator apparently exploited the old screenshot and inserted another fabricated conversation.   

A screenshot of a computerDescription automatically generated
A comparison between the original image of the LINE conversation (on the right) and the manipulated image (on the left). 

A third theme of the disinformation promoted a different perspective on the fishing boat collision than the previous one. Instead of showing the revenge activities of Chinese fishermen or condemning the Taiwanese government, the third theme claimed that the fishermen on the boat that collided with Taiwan's coast guard ship were actually Chinese agents in disguise. Furthermore, the pieces claimed that the incident was part of China's strategy to divert attention away from conflicts at home. Interestingly, one of the posts making this “Chinese agents” allegation used the same inaccurate footage found in the disinformation piece that falsely stated Chinese fishing boats attacked Taiwan coast guard ships in retaliation.

Another notable discovery from examining these disinformation pieces is that these false claims seem to be addressed to Chinese audiences instead of Taiwanese society. Most of the pieces appeared early on social media X or foreign online forums frequented by overseas Chinese. The posts were then shared on Weibo before being further introduced to Facebook or LINE, which Taiwanese primarily use. 

For example, the disinformation of the falsified LINE conversation between the former legislator and the head of the Taiwanese Ocean Affairs Council most likely first appeared on a well-known overseas Chinese site, (留园网). On February 24th, a post released the screenshot, saying that it was "an exposé" from Taiwan. On the same day, the post from was shared on X and Weibo by influencers.

While the post was circulated on Chinese social media, very few Taiwanese noticed this message. It was not until the Taiwanese politicians posted on Facebook to clarify the facts that the public knew about the fake screenshot. But at the time when the false claim received attention from the Taiwanese public, Taiwanese audiences were well aware that the LINE conversation was untrue.

Regarding the false claim that the Taiwanese Coast Guard captain was corrupt and should be held accountable for the fishermen's deaths, the post, written in simplified Chinese (Chinese characters used in China), emerged on Facebook and was then spread by Weibo influencers. However, Taiwanese Facebook accounts did not widely share this piece of misinformation, and there was little discussion among Taiwanese people. Other false information pieces about China's retaliation for the boat collision had also primarily circulated on Chinese social media or been shared by Chinese state media. 

What deserves observation is how the disinformation pieces resonated with the narratives of the Chinese government and state media. A few days following the incident, the Chinese media outlet People's Daily published an article emphasizing how the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led Taiwanese government has "become more brutal toward Chinese fishermen" (note 1), including "often clashing and damaging the mainland's boat or using rubber bullets to hurt mainland fishermen" (note 2). The blame placed on the Taiwanese government in the state media article and the rage the disinformation pieces are attempting to inflame among the Chinese public are aligned. As we have pointed out earlier, these false claims have not caused much stir in Taiwan, but it is worth continuing to monitor the change of rhetoric in the following claims and their impact on the Chinese public.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Andy Chen (Fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) and Rogge Chen (Fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.

1 The original Chinese text is “民进党上台后,对待大陆渔船日益严酷苛刻.” See People’s Daily. (2024, February 20). 民进党当局荒诞行径岂止冷血无情 [The absurd actions of the DPP authorities are more than just cold-blooded and ruthless].

2 The original Chinese text is “撞伤大陆渔船、用橡皮子弹击伤大陆渔民.” See People’s Daily at note 1.