Shipping map misrepresented amid China COVID-19 restrictions

CLAIM: A live map of vessels off the eastern coast of China shows cargo ship delays and backups caused by the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. While the wait times and the number of ships have increased at Chinese ports in recent months, the map itself doesn’t show anything out of the ordinary, according to experts and MarineTracker, the website where the map comes from. The markers on the map represent all kinds of vessels, not just commercial cargo ships. And experts say the map would have looked similar in March 2020, the early days of the pandemic.

THE FACTS: With Shanghai under strict lockdown due to China’s “zero-COVID” policy, social media users are pointing to a maritime map of a large number of vessels off the country’s eastern coast, claiming it shows how vessels are being held up at ports due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Ships waiting to dock because of China’s insane COVID strategy. This is intentional,” reads one tweet posted on May 3 with more 57,000 likes. The tweet includes a screenshot of a live tracking map, although it is unclear when this screenshot was taken.

“CHINA - Every dot is a vessel stacked in queues at all ports, not just Shanghai. China’s lockdown policies will cripple western supply chains, destroy businesses and weaken economies & governments. Almost like sanctions. #COVID19,” reads another tweet of the same screenshot with more than 2,000 likes.

A review of the screenshot shows it comes from MarineTraffic’s live map, which tracks positions of vessels around the world in real time.

But the map doesn’t just show commercial ships, as the tweets suggest, it shows every craft in the water from fishing boats to yachts.

“This is our live map but all those vessels are not waiting to dock, in fact, a very big portion of those vessels is not even commercial. There are fishing boats, tugs, special craft, all sorts of boats and ships,” Nikos Pothitakis, a spokesperson for MarineTraffic, told the AP in an email. “If you use the MarineTraffic filters on our live map to show just commercial vessels you would notice it looks completely normal for one of the world’s busiest hot spots of global shipping and trade.”

Shanghai’s port is one of the busiest ports in the world, and experts told the AP that the number of ships on the map around the ports would have looked similar early in the pandemic.

Nevertheless, there has been an increase in wait times in recent months. The number of bulk cargo ships waiting at anchor to enter Chinese ports has increased to 600-700 from 500 in early March, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence report, which is about 20%-40% more than two months ago.

Zachary Rogers, assistant professor of supply chain management at Colorado State University, said the rise in wait times is unusual. Ships have also been “skipping” the port in Shanghai to avoid long queues or because the supplies they need to pick up aren’t ready

“The volume at the ports of China’s east coast is not that unusual. What is unusual is that so many ships are skipping the world’s busiest ports because there’s nothing to pick up, and some of the ships who are there seem to have a long wait on their hands,” Rogers said in an email.

The COVID-19 restrictions are causing staffing shortages at the port in Shanghai, according to Robert Ojeda-Sierra, an economist for Fitch Ratings.

“We are seeing rising container dwell times at Shanghai port as a consequence of truckers and port staff being in lockdown – not enough staff to load/unload ships,” Ojeda-Sierra said. “There are fewer drivers available to take empty containers to factories inland for them to fill up and return to port. Factories and the port of Shanghai are operating a ‘closed loop’ where employees sleep at their places of work and have little contact with the outside world.”

Rogers also noted that if the recent COVID-19 restrictions in Shanghai continue, shipping traffic could get worse. Companies and investors worry the “zero-COVID” strategy is disrupting global trade and activity in autos, electronics and other industries, according to AP reporting.

Authorities in Shanghai this week again tightened restrictions, with residents in certain areas ordered to stay in their homes for a “quiet period.”


Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.