China Power

Fragility of the Chinese Mind

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China Power

Fragility of the Chinese Mind

Hoarding of salt and the buying up of burial plots suggest a worrying tendency for Chinese to panic.

I’m writing this entry out of frustration, because to be honest I’ve just been amazed by the behaviour of many Chinese recently.

As I mentioned in my last entry, amid the ongoing radiation fears following the earthquake in Japan that crippled several nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant, residents in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai rushed out to buy iodized salt. Why? Because someone had spread a rumour on the Internet that eating iodized salt prevents the body absorbing radiation.

Many supermarkets sold out of their six-month supply of salt supply in a single day. In Beijing, where I work, there was a 100-metre-long line of people waiting in front of a salt manufacturing company. Many unscrupulous traders increased the price of salt by anything from double to five times.

Once the run on salt had settled down, the media focused on reports that producers of personal care products, including Unilever, would be raising their prices in early April, with the prices of shampoo and detergent supposedly set to rise by about 20 percent. Once word got around, sales of such products surged. Supermarkets in Beijing reported that sales of detergent were about twice the usual.

Perhaps more bizarrely, there has been a rush in the relatively affluent province of Shandong to buy burial plots. A friend of mine who works in the media in the province told me that plot buying is mirroring the property boom. In one cemetery in Qingdao, for example, the cheapest burial plot is now 21,800RMB ($3,350), while the cost of most hover around 50,000RMB (bear in mind the average annual income in China is about $7,400). The cost per square metre of the more luxurious plots ranges from 30,000RMB to 100,000RMB. Many of those who have rushed to buy graves have done so because they worry that the prices will rise even further.

So what should we make of all this? Clearly the people who started hoarding salt were naïve. But part of the problem is the lack of transparency on the part of the government, which failed to disseminate information properly. As a result, people just don’t trust officials. Likewise, the run on detergent reflects significant unease about inflation, while the interest in snagging a burial plot early is a reflection of broader pessimism about the future. Essentially people are grabbing while they can because they’re afraid about what’s to come.

When I talk about economic issues with foreign friends, they are always quick to point out how successful China’s economy has been, and how the changes are bringing increased political and military clout to its foreign policy. The trouble is the word that comes to mind to describe the mentality demonstrated by hoarding Chinese also reflects the mindset of its foreign policy—fragile.

I’m worried that these recent examples suggest that the natural Chinese response to problems, even just perceived ones, is to panic. It’s not a healthy state of mind if China wants to shape its image in a positive way.