Misleading: These rescue photos do not show Vietnamese working for ‘illegal islands’ in the South China Sea

Aurora Xue
Jan 12 · 4 min read
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By Xue Xiaodong

Claims and reach

On Oct. 15, 2020, a group of Chinese netizens known as Di Bar (帝吧), or Li Yi Bar, posted a series of photos showing Vietnamese crew members being rescued at sea on Weibo with a claim that they sailed out to the South China Sea to build “illegal islands.”

The post said the crew set off on Oct. 11 amid typhoon Linfa and the ship was swept away by the waves later that day. It gained over 100 reposts, 500 comments and 4,000 likes.

Website “eworldship” (國際船舶網) posted a similar claim, which has been reposted by news media Sohu (搜狐) and search engine Baidu (百度). Other websites such as Daily Headlines (每日頭條), Sina (新浪), NetEase (網易) and Big Fish News (大魚新聞) also posted similar claims.

However, all those claims are misleading. Annie Lab found that the crew members in the photos were stranded on a vessel that had been pushed aground in the South China Sea since Oct. 8 amid a heavy storm.

Original photos

Through reverse image search and keyword search, Annie Lab discovered that the pictures shown in the misleading Weibo post were actually published by several Vietnam news websites, including Báo Mới, Vietnam net and People’s Army Newspaper.

A similar helicopter picture can also be found on the Vietnamese government’s official website.

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Comparison of pictures from the misleading Weibo post (left) and pictures from Vietnam news sites (right). The Weibo account puts its own watermark on all images.
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Comparison of a picture from the misleading post(left) and a picture from the official website of the Vietnamese government(right)

The government’s website and news reports identified the grounded ship as Vietship 01. Vietship 01 is a dredger owned by Vietship JCS, a company involved in shipbuilding, according to the Vietnam Registry of Ships.

Although no information was found on what project the dredger was going to be used for if the incident had not happened, it had just completed a construction work in the Cua Viet channel.

A news report by VnEXPRESS said Vietship 01 was moored in the Cua Viet port area but was pushed aground by the storm on Oct. 8 around 3 a.m. and got stranded in an area about 400 meters from the coast. There were 12 people on board.

Crew members quoted by several Vietnamese media (here, here and here) recalled that the ship was trying to take shelter when it was hit by the waves, contrary to what the claim said on Weibo.

The inclement weather hindered the rescue personnel from getting close to the crew members trapped on the wreckage. The rescue operation took place three days later with the help of the military who used helicopters on Oct. 11, the report said.

No casualty of the rescue forces was mentioned in the daily situation reports by the National Committee for Search and Rescue of Vietnam (Oct. 9, Oct. 10 and Oct. 11), despite the claim suggesting some victims were from the army.

One crew member’s dead body was retrieved on the day of rescue and two days later the ship captain passed away due to multiple organ failure and sepsis, VnExpress reported.

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Google Map shows that the location of the sunken ship is a coastal area off Vietnam

Heavy casualties

The Vietnamese government said on Oct. 9 that torrential rains and heavy flooding in the central provinces and the Central Highlands caused deaths and damages to properties and sources of livelihood.

The country’s disaster management authority also said that aside from Vietship01, there were also 16 other ships that had been affected — 11 of which sank — by the typhoon as of Oct.11.

Officials from Quang Tri Province said on Nov. 13 that people would not be allowed to stay in vessels that were anchored to prevent incidents similar to what happened to VietShip 01, Voice of Vietnam reported.

The building of artificial islands in the South China Sea has been a source of tension between China, Vietnam and five other claimant-states. Vietnam claims ownership over certain parts such as Spratlys and the Paracel islands, while China asserts the country owns most of the maritime territory.

Disclaimer: This is a student work. Although faculty members at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong have done everything possible to verify its accuracy, we cannot guarantee there are no mistakes. If you notice an error or have any questions, please email us at contact@annieasia.org

annie lab

Fact-checking project @ HKU Journalism

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