The faithless masses
A lack of trust in officialdom triggers panic buying, and a rare ballot-box backlash Mar 24th 2011 | WENZHOU AND ZHAIQIAO VILLAGE | from the print edition
IT USED to be said that you could not believe anything in China until it had been officially denied. On March 5th, however, Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, claimed that China’s “brilliant achievements” over the past five years had greatly increased the confidence of the Chinese public. Since then, even some official media have been speaking of a deep-seated “crisis of confidence”
lately illustrated by a nationwide stampede to buy salt. Voices are being openly raised about the need for more trustworthy government.
Such soul-searching is not new. A similar outbreak occurred in late December and early January after the chief of Zhaiqiao village in the coastal province of Zhejiang was run over by a lorry. Many of the villagers believed he had been assassinated on official orders because of his persistent campaign against a government-backed power-plant project. Their suspicions were widely echoed by Chinese internet users and some of the country’s feistier newspapers. The authorities said his
death was just an accident, and tried to suppress further coverage. This month villagers showed their unabated disbelief by electing a new chief closely related to his late predecessor. Local officials also largely kept the lid on this news.
Coincidentally, Zhejiang was widely reported as the origin of the salt-buying panic in mid-March. It was triggered by a confluence of flaky rumours. One was that iodine in the salt could help prevent sickness from the radiation that citizens feared might spread China’s way from the
stricken Fukushima nuclear-power plant in Japan, which is more than 2,000km from Zhejiang’s
coast. Another was that this radiation might contaminate seawater off China, and thus taint some of the country’s salt production on the east coast.
2011 Japan Disaster
Accidents and disasters
On one day alone, some 4,000 tonnes of salt were sold in Zhejiang, eight times the normal figure. In Wenzhou, a city close to Zhaiqiao village, hundreds of people rushed to supermarkets and filled baskets with salt. Salt prices are supposed to be controlled by the government, but unscrupulous merchants marked them up several times over. When supplies ran out, some consumers turned to soy sauce and fermented bean curd, because of their saltiness. The panic spread to cities around the country, including Beijing, prompting some shops to impose rationing.
After numerous government denials of the rumours and emergency shipments of salt to affected cities, the panic subsided. Many consumers returned to shops to hand back their salt and demanded to get their money back. On March 20th the police in Zhejiang’s capital, Hangzhou, said they had arrested a 31-year-old man for posting a message on the internet claiming the sea had been polluted by radiation from Fukushima and urging people to hoard salt. He was sentenced to ten days’ detention and fined 500 yuan ($76).
But some newspapers have continued to question why panic should be so widespread. The boldness of some has been striking, given a sweeping crackdown on dissent during the past few weeks in China. “Why did people engage in panic buying? It is because they do not trust the government,” argued an online commentary published by Henan Daily. Had they trusted it, the provincial newspaper said, they would have believed the authorities capable of dealing with any radiation pollution. Legal Daily, a Beijing newspaper, said the public’s inability to make rational decisions in a crisis could stem from the government’s own failure in normal times to give people freedom to judge things for themselves. The government, it said, should free citizens from their “swaddling clothes”.
On March 11th Legal Daily also appeared to risk the ire of propaganda officials by publishing a report on the elections held two days earlier in Zhaiqiao village. The silence of most Chinese media was striking given their extensive coverage of the aftermath of the death of the village leader, Qian Yunhui. Commentaries published at the time cited the story as a glaring example of a breakdown of public trust in officialdom. Some villagers are still convinced that the government wanted Mr Qian killed in order to prevent him standing for office again.
Red banners calling on villagers not to disrupt the elections are still on display in the village. Residents say they had threatened to boycott the ballot if police were sent in during the polls. Clashes between villagers and riot police have occasionally broken out in recent years because of disputes over the nearby power plant.
On this occasion, the government backed off. The result, announced at 3am to cheers from an assembled crowd, was an overwhelming victory for the cousin of the deceased, who defeated the local government’s preferred candidate. Official denials can still be ineffective, indeed counterproductive.