Food supply in China: how a warning sparked panic buying

But the government’s latest attempt to allay price and supply concerns seems to be spiraling out of control.

A missive on food storage from China’s Ministry of Commerce sparked panic buying among the public and frenzied speculation online this week.
At first glance, the notice doesn’t seem too different from the typical guidelines the Chinese government has sent in the past, emphasizing the need to boost supplies.

This orders local communities to ensure that their citizens have a “sufficient supply” of basic necessities this winter. He is also calling on those governments to keep food costs stable – a concern in recent weeks, as extreme weather conditions, energy shortages and Covid-19 restrictions threaten supply.

But Monday’s directive caught the attention of everyday Chinese in a way few other government notices have.

This seems in part to be due to the fact that it contains sparse language about the need for local authorities to encourage families to stock “daily needs”. Even though the review was not meant to be read by the average household, many internet users took it as a personal warning.

The government “didn’t even tell us to stockpile goods when the Covid outbreak erupted in early 2020,” wrote a user on the Twitter-like Weibo service earlier this week.
Since then, the reaction has intensified. A video posted on Weibo by state-run 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 store shelves are empty.
Food is a very sensitive issue in China. The great Chinese famine of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the deaths of around tens of millions of people.

The tragedy remains in the living memory of many in the country. And while the Chinese economy has since undergone a dramatic transformation, concerns about food security persist: the government, for example, recently unveiled an “action plan” encouraging people not to order more food than they don’t need it, and point out restaurants that waste food.

Yet the unease caused by the advice of the Ministry of Commerce was exceptionally intense. Rampant speculation has even linked the call to stockpile food with rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei. China regards Taiwan as an “inseparable part” of its territory, even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the autonomous island.

There is nothing to support rumors that China is preparing for an impending war. But the online panic suggests some tension, according to Willy Lam, an assistant professor in the history department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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

In authoritarian China, eating freely is an expensive activity.  Now a campaign against food waste also wants to control meals
Lam also highlighted several economic concerns that could be contributing to the unrest. This year’s energy crisis has forced factories to halt part of production and triggered blackouts for households – issues which in some cases “have occurred without notice from the government,” he said. declared.

“This reflects people’s anxiety over further drastic increases in food [costs] and also a distrust of the government, ”Lam added.

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 were plenty of supplies to be made. Zhu stressed that the directive was aimed at local authorities.

Jiangsu’s Emergency Management Department, meanwhile, on Tuesday acknowledged its concerns about “emergency supplies” on its WeChat account. But the agency said any storage recommendations are “normal” and aimed at “improving 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 – is also likely a factor. A single case can prompt Chinese authorities to act, lock down entire areas, and conduct mass testing or quarantine requirements.

Such measures “are likely to have an impact on residents who visit stores, as well as market opening hours,” said Chenjun Pan, senior analyst at Rabobank who studies agriculture in China.

Wang Hongcun, an official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Commerce, admitted last week that strict containment measures could contribute to the rising cost of food, adding that the cost of transit between regions could rise. He pointed out that the prices of some vegetables in the nation’s capital had climbed 50% or more in October.

Lam said Beijing is also unlikely to change course, which means cities must be prepared to endure potentially long lockdowns as the government tries to keep its coronavirus case count low.

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

– CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.

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