Did the Washington Post criticise China for ‘forcing trees to exist’?

We came across the following claim on the social media platform X:

The post includes an image of what appears to be an article by The Washington Post, a US-based newspaper. The headline in the article reads, ‘China is forcing hundreds of millions of new trees to exist every year’.

In addition, the author of the post opines in the caption that this shows ‘The Wests view of China is laughable’. The caption suggests that the headline is an unfair criticism of China’s policies involving trees, which may relate to green initiatives or reforestation.

A Non-existent Headline

When we looked up the article, we found that it could not be located on the website of The Washington Post. Neither could it be located on any of the newspaper’s X, Facebook or Instagram pages.

On the contrary, we found factchecks by Reuters and CheckYourFact from April 2022 that identified the screenshot as fake. When contacted by email, a communications representative at The Washington Post told both Reuters and CheckYourFact that ‘The Post did not run a story with this headline’.

Reuters’ and CheckYourFact’s factchecks were a response to posts on X and Facebook in March and April 2022 that, like the post above, criticised The Washington Post for their reporting.

A further web search of the headline revealed that it had originally appeared in 2021 both on Reddit, where it was posted as satire news, as well as on a site for memes. The satirical content appears to have been reposted under the portrayal of the headlines as genuine.

The Washington Post and China’s Reforestation Efforts

While the article in the X post does not exist, we did a search on The Post’s reporting on China and tree planting to investigate if there was any substance behind the criticism. We found two articles where China’s tree planting was reported on, and where drawbacks of the efforts were mentioned.

The first, an article titled ‘Let a billion trees bloom: Can a great green wall of trees stop China’s spreading desert?’ from 2013, details extensive efforts to plant trees in an effort to halt desertification, which was threatening the air quality of urban areas such as Beijing.

In one section, the article mentions that researchers had questioned the ‘long-term viability of significant aspects of China’s reforestation push, suggesting that up to 85 percent of the newly planted trees could fail due to factors such as the use of nonnative species.

In another opinion article from 2018 titled ‘China is reforesting land the size of Ireland. Here’s what that looks like’, the author mentions an effort to increase the forested areas in Hebei province in order to combat pollution and environmental degradation due to industrial development.

The article says that ‘not everyone is happy’ with the policy, quoting a farmer who had to ‘turn over his land for reforestation’ and was banned from growing his usual crops. The farmer says that he had ‘no choice but to rent (the land) out’, expressing his opinion that the situation was better before the reforestation campaign began.

While the two articles include information regarding the drawbacks of the reforestation initiatives, we did not find that there was a pattern of unfounded criticism of the initiatives, as other sections of the articles mention the motivating causes and benefits of the initiatives.

A Claim Without Roots

The claim in the X post is therefore false, and had been debunked previously in 2022. Its origins lie in satire and meme posts created in 2021.

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