(April 12, 2011) In this first in a series, Voices From China, Chinese blogger Zeng Jinyan writes that the panicked response of Chinese citizens to the Japanese nuclear crisis betrays a fundamental distrust of the Chinese Government and official media.
In the wake of the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, fears of radiation caused panic shopping in many countries. Some Japanese citizens stocked up on food and other daily necessities. Many Americans bought iodine pills. Hong Kong residents rushed to buy Japanese milk powder produced before the nuclear accident. Chinese people took this hysteria much further. They bought salt. Tonnes of salt. Now, some of them want to return the excess salt, which they now realize they have no use for.
It is human nature to buy things we need when we foresee a crisis. But the salt panic in China was the result of a systemic societal problem. Salt sales were driven entirely by rumors. Some rumors said that people would be protected from radioactive leaks from the crippled nuclear reactors in Japan if they ate salt. Other rumors claimed that the oceans were being polluted with radioactivity, which was contaminating all seafood and salt.
But panic really spread across the country when CCTV, the state-run television agency, tried to comfort the public by claiming that salt and food in China was safe. Why? Because the public does not trust what the government or state-run media says.
China has strict censorship of media and individuals. There is no independent media, but thanks to technology, we have access to some truth and a lot of misleading information through the Internet, even if it is all filtered by the censors. Most Chinese citizens do not voice their opinions publicly, but they usually believe the opposite of the state-sanctioned news. Though young people and educated people can easily access information about how to deal with nuclear radiation on websites, such as the World Health Organization’s, for many Chinese people, TV and domestic newspapers are still their main sources of information.
When the Chinese public read reports about the nuclear power plant leak in Japan they were concerned. But they could not immediately get credible information from the state-run television or print media about the nature of the risk. Instead, the Chinese government’s reaction was to insist that nuclear power plants and projects in China were safe. A few days later the State Council announced that all new nuclear power plant projects were suspended. When the CCTV reported that food and salt in China was safe, people just made their own decisions: they panicked.
The “salt panic” suggests that the people who rushed to buy salt, and people who spread rumors, either lack common sense or lack confidence in the government. For some aged citizens, the run on salt was caused by their experiences during the Big Famine . They were deeply traumatized by the famine, so the slightest hint of scarcity terrifies them. It is common sense to most people that salt consumption can’t protect people against radiation, and people usually consume well or brine salt, instead of sea salt. Also, the salt supply in China is much greater than what we consume. Salt is different from other goods in China because the state has enforced a monopoly over it since the West Han Dynasty. The government controls salt production and sales. Many otherwise reasonable people still panicked, since they didn’t believe that the Chinese government could handle the impact of nuclear leaks.
Detention, arrest, and punishment followed the panic. A Mr. Chen from Zhejiang province and two people in Shanghai who posted comments online were detained for “spreading salt rumors.” The government took measures to ensure that supermarkets and shops provided enough salt at the usual price. Police arrested some citizens who sold salt at a higher price. This eased public panic somewhat. Those who bought too much salt wanted to return it for a refund, and were rebuked by Netizens.
Experts and intellectuals prefer to criticize particular government shortfalls, rather than examine the big picture. Professor Qiu Liping in Shanghai University said in a China Daily report that “the panic perhaps could have been avoided if the government had released enough reliable information in response to the recent series of disasters in Japan.” But this assumes that people trust government information. They don’t, and it’s hard to blame them.
China is facing a tough transformation to a modern society. We need to provide people with modern education for citizenship before essential political reforms can take place. I admire the Japanese. They’ve shown how well-educated citizens can endure in the face of a major natural disaster. Generally speaking, Japanese people do not behave unreasonably.
Rumors have a stronger influence than official news sources in places without transparency and the free flow of information. Transparency contributes to social trust and confidence building. The free flow of information helps protect against misleading information and poor judgment.
Transparency and freedom of expression are fundamental to an open, stable, and modern society. The Chinese government must stop censoring the media and individuals if China is to achieve the level of citizen awareness and education needed for progress. Until then, people will continue to act unreasonably.
 The Great Chinese Famine, officially referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disasters, was the period in the People’s Republic of China between 1958 and 1961 in which an estimated 15-35 million people died from starvation and related illnesses caused by the disastrous forced collectivization policies of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.
Zeng Jinyan is a Chinese blogger born in China’s Fujian province in 1983. In 2007, she was selected as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World as a Hero and Pioneer. She writes on various topics, especially on civil society in China. Zeng is also a social worker. She co-founded an HIV/AIDS care and support organization called Loving Source in 2004.