A apparently harmless official advise for Chinese citizens to stock up on essentials in case of an emergency provoked panic purchasing and internet speculation: Is China about to declare war on Taiwan?
The answer is probably not — most analysts believe military conflict is unlikely — but the messages on social media demonstrate that the danger is on people’s minds, prompting a barrage of war-mongering responses.
Taiwan is a self-governing island with a population of 24 million people that China considers to be a renegade province that should be brought under its control. Tensions have lately increased considerably, with China deploying an increasing number of airplanes on flights near the island and the United States supplying armaments to Taiwan and strengthening connections with the administration.
The majority of those interviewed in Beijing, China’s capital, believed that conflict was improbable, but they acknowledged the mounting tensions. They usually supported China’s long-ruling Communist Party’s official policy of peacefully bringing Taiwan under Chinese authority.
“I don’t feel panicked, but I believe we should be more aware of this than we have been in the past,” Hu Chunmei, who was out for a neighborhood stroll, said.
Whether due to war concerns or not, local media reported sporadic reports of shortages of rice, noodles, and cooking oil in certain Chinese towns. The risk of neighborhood lockdowns as a COVID-19 epidemic spreads across many provinces was a more urgent concern for some.
With promises of ample supply, the administration acted rapidly to attempt to calm anxieties. Customers were urged to shop sensibly and not to heed to rumors or hoard items, according to a bright yellow notice on a Beijing grocery aisle.
The internet conjecture began with a notice from the Commerce Ministry on Monday evening regarding a strategy to assure the supply and price stability of vegetables and other essentials for the winter and spring seasons. A section in it advised families to stock up on essentials for everyday use and emergency situations.
That sparked stockpiling and speculation on social media that the government was suggesting that people should stock up for conflict.
China’s state media has extensively covered the escalating tensions with Taiwan, including the frequently harsh remarks exchanged between China and the United States and Taiwan on one side and the United States and Taiwan on the other.
“It’s reasonable to have sparked some imagination,” Shi Shusi, a social critic, remarked. “We should trust the government’s answers, but the underlying worry merits more consideration.”
He claimed that while populist opinions in favor of war may not reflect majority opinion, they do send a message or threat to Taiwan.
Other events added gasoline to the war rumors. A screenshot of a list of suggested emergency items for families published by the government in Xiamen, a coastal city bordering an outlying Taiwanese island, was posted by one individual in August. Veterans were being summoned back to duty to prepare for battle, according to an unsubstantiated story — disputed Wednesday by a military-affiliated social media account.
It’s difficult to say how many people saw the announcement as a possible precursor to war, but the outcry was strong enough to force a response from the state media the next day.
The Economic Daily, a government-owned publication, advised people not to let their imaginations go wild, adding that the advice was intended for anyone who could find themselves abruptly locked up due to a COVID-19 epidemic.
The Global Times newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, blamed the internet conjecture on the amplification of public opinion amid a moment of crisis.
He said, “I do not believe the government intends to convey a signal to the public at this time through a warning from the Commerce Ministry that people need to ‘hurry up and prepare for war.'”
Another Beijing resident, Zhang Xi, dismissed the likelihood of conflict and advised patience in a debate that dates back to the civil war that brought Mao Zedong’s Communists to power in 1949.
“This is a historical relic, and it’s hard to address right soon,” she explained.