Analysis: How a Food Supply Warning Sparked Shopping Panic in China

But the government’s latest attempt to avoid price and supply concerns appears to be out of control.

A missive about food storage China’s Ministry of Commerce sparked panic buying among the public and frenzied speculation online this week.
At first sight, the news It doesn’t seem much different from the typical directives the Chinese government has issued in the past emphasizing the need to shore up supplies.

He orders local authorities to ensure that their citizens have an “adequate supply” of basic goods this winter. It also instructs those governments to keep food costs stable, a point of concern in recent weeks as extreme weather, energy shortages and Covid-19 restrictions threaten supply.

China urges families to stock up on food as supply challenges multiply

But Monday’s directive has attracted the attention of the Chinese in a way that few other government advisories have.

In part, this appears to be because it includes unusual language about the need for local authorities to encourage families to stockpile “essentials.” Even if the notice was not intended to be read by the average household, many online have used it as a personal warning.

The government “did not even tell us to store goods when the Covid outbreak broke out in early 2020.” wrote a user on the Twitter-like Weibo service earlier this week.
Since then, the backlash has intensified. A video published on Weibo by the state news magazine China News Weekly shows long lines of shoppers at grocery stores in Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu province. Their carts are full of products and other supplies, while the store shelves are empty.
The food is a very sensitive subject in China. The Great Chinese Famine during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the deaths of approximately tens of millions of people.

The tragedy remains in the living memory of many in the country. And while China’s economy has undergone a dramatic transformation since then, concerns about food safety persist: The government, for example, recently released an “action plan” that encourages people not to order more food from the market. you need to report on restaurants that waste food now.

Still, the unrest caused by the Commerce Ministry advisory has been unusually intense. Unbridled speculation has even linked the call to store food with growing tensions between Beijing and Taipei. China considers Taiwan an “inseparable part” of its territory, despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the autonomous island.

There is nothing whatsoever to corroborate the rumors that China is preparing for an imminent war. But the online panic suggests some tension, according to Willy Lam, an associate professor in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It is a reflection of the tense geopolitical situation between China and neighboring countries,” he said.

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Lam also pointed to several economic concerns that may be contributing to the turmoil. This year’s energy crisis forced factories to suspend part of their production and caused blackouts in homes – Problems that in some cases “occurred without prior notice from the government,” he said.

“Reflects people’s anxiety about further drastic increases in food [costs] and also a distrust in the government, “added Lam.

The Chinese government and some state media have tried to allay fears about food shortages.

Zhu Xiaoliang, an official with the Ministry of Commerce, told state broadcaster CCTV this week that there are plenty of supplies for everyone. Zhu emphasized that the directive was intended for local authorities.

Meanwhile, the Jiangsu Emergency Management Department acknowledged concerns about “emergency supplies” on its WeChat account on Tuesday. But the agency said any recommendation for storage is “normal” and intended to “enhance public awareness of disaster prevention.”

The government’s commitment to a zero-Covid policy – even as countries around the world reopen and learn to live with the coronavirus – it is also likely to be a factor. A single case can prompt Chinese authorities to act, blocking entire areas and carrying out massive testing or quarantine requirements.

Such measures “will likely affect residents who go to stores and will also affect the operating hours of markets,” said Chenjun Pan, a senior analyst at Rabobank who researches agriculture in China.

Wang Hongcun, an official with the Beijing Municipal Commerce Bureau acknowledged last week that strict containment measures may be contributing to the rising cost of food, adding that the cost of moving between regions could rise. He noted that the prices of some vegetables in the country’s capital had soared 50% or more in October.

Lam said Beijing is also not likely to change course, meaning cities must prepare to endure potentially prolonged lockdowns as the government tries to keep the coronavirus case count low.

“This is a preparation for the fact that these lockdown conditions will continue, although overall, China’s overall figures are actually very low compared to other countries,” he added. “Beijing is unlikely to stop this zero-tolerance policy.”

– CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.

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