Food for thought

Why has Beijing asked the public to ‘stock up’ on daily necessities?


Some veg is now pricier than pork

In October 1962 there were fears that the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Indeed, after a televised address by John F Kennedy, many Americans worried the Soviets could launch nukes from Cuba at any moment. Panicked families across the US started to hoard food and fuel fearing a war ahead.

Rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait are yet to trigger panic buying of food in Taiwan. Paradoxically, a government notice in mainland China this week advising households to stock up on essential supplies was one of the most talked-about topics on the internet, fuelling further speculation about the prospects of war over Taiwan.

The rumours started on Tuesday as screenshots of a Ministry of Commerce (MoC) notice made the rounds on social media. The posting advised households to “store a certain amount of daily necessities as needed to meet daily life and emergencies”, getting more than 100 million views on Sina Weibo on Tuesday alone. Many netizens were soon linking the message to the worsening geopolitical situation in the Taiwan Strait.

As discussion of the announcement spread like wildfire across mainland Chinese internet platforms, various government agencies and state media outlets were forced to intervene to call for calm, albeit with varying explanations for why the MoC had issued the advice. For instance, the Economic Daily warned the public against reading too much into the announcement, rebuking those with “an overactive imagination”. The statement, the newspaper insisted, was linked to the resurgence of Covid-19 cases in a number of cities, and simply aimed to remind the public to make adequate preparations for potential lockdowns.

The People’s Daily also noted that the MoC had issued similar notices earlier this year amid rising vegetable prices and regional Covid-19 outbreaks.

Guan Lixin, a senior official at the ministry, then took to the stage, telling state media that delivery of stable supplies and prices for daily necessities was a major responsibility of the ministry. “This notice was issued based on the frequent natural disasters during the autumn and upcoming winter, soaring vegetable prices, sporadic coronavirus cases and the possible worsening of the La Nina weather phenomenon,” he explained to the press.

Indeed, on the food front the government was warning last week that the prices of some vegetables had already climbed more than 65% over the past month and that they could keep rising over the winter due to record rainfall and low temperatures wrecking harvests in major crop-producing provinces.

According to state broadcaster CCTV, prices for the most popular vegetables in some cities are now surpassing those of pork (which has dropped more than 50% in price this year, after a surge in 2020). CCTV also warned viewers that the rise in vegetable prices could feed into higher inflation for shoppers, bucking a trend in which the consumer price index had stayed at relatively low levels in the first three quarters of this year (see WiC560).

Meanwhile Hu Xijin, the Global Times’ chief editor, offered another context for officialdom’s message to ‘stock up’: it was in keeping with a long tradition of storing reserves of cabbage and radishes before the coldest winter months arrive in northern China, he pointed out. Conversely, Hu didn’t believe the central government would ever rely on a notice from the commerce ministry to remind people to “hurry up and prepare for war” over Taiwan. “Public opinion is always very sensitive. This is normal. However, everyone must show basic judgement and avoid being easily led astray,” he admonished.

“The cross-Straits situation has seen unprecedented tension,” Hu then continued, with comments that seemed to somewhat undermine his previous call for calm. “If the DPP [Taiwan’s governing party] insists on going their own way, then war is the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

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