The Faithless Masses

A recent public panic and run on salt, which was falsely rumored to prevent , has sparked a discussion on the crisis of confidence in the Chinese government. From the Economist:

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”.

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