(A Guest post by Yajun)
The nuclear crisis in Japan has been a test not only of the resilience of that nation but also for the world. Many foreign residents have grabbed the earliest possible tickets out of the country, while residents in Tokyo and in the damaged northeast part of the country have (for the most part) placed their trust in their government’s decisions while they try to rebuild their lives.*
Meanwhile, in China, some people are starting to lose their cool. On Wednesday, messages about radiation arriving in Beijing were widely disseminated and many people took the rumors seriously. I received several long-distance phone calls from my family warning me to be careful.
Yesterday, word spread of people rushing to buy salt and the media was flooded with stories, pictures, and articles about the “salt rush.” As a result, stores throughout China were sold out and the price of salt in some places went from 1.3 RMB per bag to 10 RMB.
To be honest, I don’t get it. I suppose some people believe that consuming iodized salt can protect them from radiation, others are afraid that radioactive ocean water will mean not enough salt for sale in the future. Whatever the reason, the situation was serious enough that the CCTV news broadcast spent 15 minutes this morning trying to convince people that eating too much salt is bad for your health, that China has an adequate supply to meet market demand, and so for the love of God, please stop panicking.
Some buyers might not even be aware of why they are doing this. There are rumors, and everybody else is doing it, and that’s enough of a reason to do it too. It’s sad to see people abandon their own judgment and just follow the crowd.
However, I’m also saddened to see a good deal of mockery and criticism online blaming the panic buying on people’s “low suzhi” and ignorance. I’m sure nobody wants to fight with other shoppers, wait in a long line, and then pay an inflated price for what used to be a basic commodity, but this small bag of salt is something they can trust, something they can count on. Many people, like my grandparents, who survived the Great Famine of the early 1960s and the Cultural Revolution, are still conditioned by that experience, and they have vivid memories of food and basic supplies running out. When a run on a commodity happens, it’s hard for them not to compete with others to be sure they are not left behind.
That said, the salt rush is mainly a symptom of a profound lack of political trust.** In the event of a real radiation crisis, many people simply don’t know whether or not the Chinese government would tell the truth. Rather than wait and feel helpless, they listen to rumors and take the actions they believe will protect them and their family.
A good recent example of this lack of political trust is last month’s “Xiangshui incident” in Jiangsu province. On February 10, during the 2011 Spring Festival, a strong odor covered the whole town at 2:00 in the morning. Many local residents believed that an accident at a nearby factory had released toxic fumes. In the middle of the night tens of thousands of panicked people from 38 villages fled their homes. In the end, four people were killed as the result of being trampled in the rush to escape or in traffic accidents as the roads jammed with evacuees. The local government didn’t respond until 4:00 the next afternoon, but even after that people still didn’t believe the official response because of several previous accidents and leaks from the plant.
Ultimately, the vapors proved harmless, although nothing official has been said about what caused the odor. Nevertheless, when residents finally returned home, several people were arrested on charges of spreading rumors. Even though this was a false alarm, I have no doubt that if this kind of thing happens again, residents will still choose to flee, because they fear not being able to receive reliable and trustworthy information in time. They don’t have the confidence to believe that the government would tell the truth, so panicked flight is the best choice in a bad situation.
With the recent radiation scare in China, the Ministry of the Environment did announce that China has not been affected by radiation from Japan, but that did little to slow down the run on salt. In times of crisis, people want to feel like they are doing something to help themselves, even if that something might seem silly or even counterproductive. Worried about “what might be but can’t be helped” people instead focus on those things they do have control over, even if it’s something as seemingly trivial as buying a bag (or a case) of salt.
*Though as we’re seeing, even the patience of the people in Japan is understandably starting to run short. Given everything that has happened over the past few days, it’s still impressive that faith in the government response has last as long as it has.
**I actually wrote my senior thesis at PKU on the issue of political trust. This is why this subject is so interesting for me.