China Braces For End Of World

With the apocalypse now less than ten days away, China has been joining in the global festival of panic, resignation and denial at the imminent extinction of humanity. At China Real Time Report, Chao Deng described some Chinese preparations for the end of the country’s 5,000-year history:

Local residents in Shuangliu and Longchang, two counties located in southwest China’s Sichuan province, have almost cleared shops there of candles and matches after speculation spread online that there would be three straight days of darkness starting Dec. 21, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. Vendors in both places are also selling supply packages and self-help manuals, according to the report.

[…] Worries about the world coming to an end are driving the Chinese to other drastic measures, including getting married. Xinhua reported that marriage registry offices in Xi’an, Hefei, Guangzhou and Shanghai have already maxed out their quota for approving marriages on Dec. 21.

[…] Surprising as it may be, the apocalypse panic in Sichuan pales in comparison to a salt-buying panic in 2011, triggered by more reasonable (though ultimately unfounded) fears over nuclear radiation spilling from Japan’s quake-damaged reactors. Chinese authorities arrested a 31-year old Internet user for “spreading salt rumors” via an online posting that urged people to stock up because radiation from Japan had polluted the sea off of China’s coast. Some Chinese citizens even demand refunds for their salt after finding themselves with more than they could use.

Both spates of hysteria have roots in more general anxieties, according to Peking University sociologist Lu Jiehua, who told Global Times that “this panic buying not only shows people’s fear of an upcoming apocalypse, but also reflects their sense of uncertainty toward life and society.”

Many other retailers have also seen commercial potential in mankind’s looming destruction, to the despair of Global Times’ Xuyang Jingjing:

Stores are […] hyping up their year-end promotions, capitalizing on an “end of the world” marketing opportunity. As the old saying goes, “when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” In this case, when the universe gives you a doomsday, cash in on others’ fear!

I’m hardly surprised by such business gimmicks anymore. Over the past few decades of rapid development, we’ve fostered the amazing ability to not just see the silver lining in every cloud; rather, we’ve managed to squeeze silver out of every cloud.

[…] They say money can’t buy you love or happiness. Well, maybe with the money you get from selling your kidney, you can buy that latest gadget that you perceive will make your life complete.

Sure, when the end comes we might die short of a kidney or some other vital organ. But at least we’ll be a lot happier.

(This refers to the case of an Anhui teenager who sold a kidney to buy an iPad and iPhone. The leader of the gang which arranged the operation was sentenced last month to five years in prison, while nine people involved have paid 1.48 million yuan in compensation.)

If retailers have pushed things too far, others have tried even shadier ways of cashing in on the looming cataclysm. From Chen Xiaoru, also at Global Times:

Shanghai police received 25 complaints about people prognosticating doomsday prophecies outside of residents’ homes in eight districts Wednesday and Thursday, the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau said on its official microblog.

The complaints, which police received over a 24-hour period, illustrate how serious some residents are taking the Mayan prophecies about the end of the world, which authorities fear might be exploited. “Police made the announcement because there might be people trying to take advantage of the prophecy to scam residents out of money,” said Zhu Liang, a press officer with Huangpu police.

[…] Other reports have emerged about scammers trying to cash in on people’s beliefs. In Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, two con artists tried to persuade residents to donate all their money to escape the end of the world, according to the Zhejiang Province police’s official microblog.

While impending doom has brought out the worst in some, it has inspired others to impressive feats of inventiveness and engineering. In Urumqi, Lu Zhenghai has invested his life’s savings in the construction of an ark. Should the end not come to pass, the half-finished vessel may have some potential as a tourist attraction. Yang Zongfu, meanwhile, has developed a 1.5 million yuan spherical life-pod capable of holding three people and a year’s supplies. Yang claims to have sold over a dozen of the capsules, though The Wall Street Journal was unable to verify this. The eve of reckoning also moved one Chengdu company to generously grant its staff two extra days of vacation.

Adam Minter examined the 2012 phenomenon at Bloomberg View last week, describing its debt to Hollywood and how it has become a channel for some subtly barbed political commentary.

City Express, a popular, state-owned evening newspaper in Zhejiang province, tweeted photos of the collapses with this commentary:

“Today three major collapses happened nationwide. 1. A sink hole opened near the Palace Station of the Nanjing Metro Line 3 and a bus filled with passengers fell into it … 2. In Xiamen, the Jiangjun Temple Road collapsed and four cars were destroyed; 3. At the Guangzhou headquarters of Hainan Airlines a portion of the construction collapsed, burying alive a father of twins. PS: This convinces one to believe in the Mayans!”

The intent of this tweet is a matter of some controversy. Some netizens see it as an attempt to shake off blame for poor infrastructure. “This is a man-made disaster,” wrote one user in the comment thread beneath the City Express tweet. A second expressed outrage that the Mayans would even be invoked under such circumstances: “Taking this kind of thing as an excuse for shoddy engineering?”

More likely, though, the comments are over-interpreting what is actually intended as a pointed critique of the local governments and contractors thought to be responsible for China’s shoddy buildings. As a state-run newspaper, City Express wouldn’t really dare to criticize so directly (or generally), so it has used the most convenient platform available: Mayan prophecy.

Minter later tweeted:

Also on Sina Weibo, a widely shared spoof video of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard comforting her people in the face of “flesh eating zombies, demonic hell beasts or […] the total triumph of K-pop” sparked a clash of political cultures. From Monica Tan at Daily Life:

The video of Prime Minister “Ji La De”, as Gillard is called in Chinese, along with these reactions by Chinese web users says just as much about Chinese politics as it does Australian. The vast majority of Australians might react to such a video with mild amusement, but hardly consider it shocking stuff. In contrast, for Chinese audiences this kind of “larrikin” behaviour coming from the country’s most powerful leader is literally too strange to be believed, with partial credit surely due to Gillard’s deadpan delivery.

User sleepeat said: “This can’t be possible, that a head of state is talking this way.” [Gillard is not, in fact, a head of state.] While another called Sum Shudong wrote, “How many glasses or bottles has Sister Prime Minister drunk?” A few even accused Gillard of being crazy and irresponsible, with user Chen Yue Cyanni writing earnestly, “Why has the Prime Minister of Australia been convinced that all this end of the world business is true when this type of thing has no scientific basis? She’s misleading her country.”

Some sceptics do maintain that life will carry on as usual. Sina Weibo’s explanation of the candle panic-buying when it trended last week concluded (via Tea Leaf Nation) that: “Experts have stated: Anyone with a bit of scientific common sense knows that there will not be three days of consecutive darkness.” Xinhua consulted a range of authoritative figures who assured the public that there is no need to panic—at least, not about the Mayan calendar.

Science fiction author Wang Jinkang believes those convinced by the rumors would do well to focus more on the here and now, stating that they should be more wary of disasters caused by climate change, a possible shortage of freshwater and deadly pathogens.

“The rumors are a misinterpretation of the Maya calendar and are still going on,” said Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for China’s lunar orbiter project, adding that he believes Dec. 21 will be a peaceful and safe day.

“The sun will still rise on Dec. 21. All reactions to the doomsday prophecy show a strong recognition of the crisis of human existence. However, these reactions should be rooted in science,” said Wang Sichao, an astronomer at the Nanjing Purple Mountain Observatory.

He explained that when the sun transforms from its current stable state into a red giant, its expansion will devour Earth, signaling the end for the human race and the very planet itself.

“However, that won’t happen for another 5 billion years. At that time, humans will have to be able to find a new home,” Wang Sichao said, adding that the best reaction to the rumors should be to cherish one’s life and loved ones.

A weary NASA has assembled a Frequently Asked Questions page debunking the 2012 Doomsday prophecies, while astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson addressed the issue in a 2009 video at Fora.TV: