Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 2 November 2021

 China warning to stockpile food triggers panic

Michael Smith

Updated Nov 3, 2021 – 12.23pm,

first published at 12.21pm

Tokyo | A routine Chinese government notice urging households to stockpile food and other necessities due to volatile vegetable prices inadvertently triggered panic around the country this week as concerns grow about the latest COVID-19 outbreak.

The warning also prompted a wave of social media posts, viewed by millions of people, linking it to rising tensions with Taiwan.

Mickey Mouse and lockdown. Visitors receive COVID-19 tests at the Shanghai Disney Resort in Shanghai. AP

Government officials and state media on Tuesday raced to play down rising fears about supply shortages, COVID-19 restrictions and regional security tensions. The exact reason for issuing the notice was unclear, but media reports suggested it was linked to volatile food prices as well as the need for households to stock up in case they were caught up in a lockdown.

Extreme weather has hurt Chinese crops this year, raising the price of vegetables and some essentials.

The country is also in the grip of a major energy shortage, growing fears about its debt-laden property sector, and the impact of supply chain and infrastructure bottlenecks related to the global pandemic. About 500 cases have been recorded in the country’s latest COVID-19 outbreak.

While this is relatively low compared with most other countries, China’s zero-tolerance approach means millions of people have been placed under lockdown without notice and travel severely restricted, particularly in the capital Beijing, as part of efforts to stamp out the outbreak.

While it has issued similar statements in the past, the Ministry of Commerce’s notice urging households to store “daily necessities” in case of an emergency went viral on social media.

“When I looked at my phone on Tuesday I was shocked. All my friends were posting WeChat messages about this warning. We don’t normally worry about this kind of thing,” one office worker based in Shanghai said.

“I think what is different this time is that this news exposed people’s hidden fears about a possible war [with Taiwan] and everything else that is going on. It is not something my friends usually talk about.”

While speculation about the warning focused on China’s latest COVID-19 outbreak, many social media posts were also related to security tensions with Taiwan. Videos of trains carrying dozens of tanks circulated on social media, but there was no evidence they were linked to any military action or even when they were taken.

Many of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are more concerned about the country’s latest COVID-19 outbreak. More than 30,000 guests were stopped from leaving Shanghai Disney on Sunday night until they were tested for COVID-19 following one suspected case at the entertainment complex.

Some residents in Beijing, where authorities are taking a hyper-vigilant approach towards the virus in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, have reported being forced to isolate in their homes without notice after briefly visiting locations where there has been a suspected case. Travel around many parts of the country has also been restricted and thousands of tourists have been stranded.

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