A salt and battery

It’s been a little over two weeks since Japan was rocked by its worst-ever earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed. There have been inevitable murmurings in China’s blogosphere from sadistic netizens calling it baoying(报应) or karma for Japan’s atrocities during World War II, but thankfully these have been few and far between. More gratifying has been the influx of Chinese comments praising the Japanese for their orderly and thoughtful reaction to the disaster.

To really understand how different the countries react to disaster, you only need to look at China’s panic salt buying spree to supposedly protect against nuclear contamination. Supermarket shelves were cleared in a matter of minutes across Beijing. The mother of my girlfriend Xiaojing, who runs a small convenience stall on the rural outskirts of Beijing, saw months’ supplies of salt snapped up before noon the day of the panic spread. One woman allegedly stocked up on five years’ worth of salt – never mind that you would need to consume just shy of a kilo a salt daily to prevent against radioactivity, by which measure you would more than likely die from sodium poisoning.

SALT SPREE: Shoppers in Beijing strip supermarkets of salt.

The scenes of shoppers pushing and shoving to get their hands on salt is all too familiar in the world’s most populous country, where subway commuters routinely cut lines and stick out elbows to board carriages in rush-hour. It’s all about survival of the fittest and first in, first serve.

The irony worth pointing out is that the virtue of China’s stereotypical communist model is control over the masses. Here, you had hysteria and panic yet in democratic Japan, where there is a much greater flow of ideas and freedom, there was control and order.

Salt fever was spiked by a guy who posted rumors online spruiking the white additives’ anti-radioactivity properties. Predictably, he was shown on television news bulletins handcuffed in a prison jumpsuit, head bowed before police. You won’t hear from him for a while, now he’s going to prison.

These trends of panic buying are nothing new. When I first came to China, the mainland was gripped by fears of the A/H1-N1 virus. Shoppers hoarded markets to collect every clove of garlic they could find to boost their immunity.

Compare this to Japan, where, let’s remember, the disaster actually took place. Food, drinking water and fuel supplies were all but cut off for four or five days after the quake struck. There was minimal panic and public looting was not even a remotely likely outcome.

Aside from wanting to fill their thyroids with iodine, Chinese shoppers snapped up salt because they worried it would not be available due to a cut off of sea-salt supplies. Less than 1 percent of salt sold in China comes from evaporated seawater.

It’s wrong to blame people for behaving like this when information is so scarce about the scale and hazards of a potential nuclear meltdown. It’s only naturally to take every precaution advised, no matter how suspicious the source. Better safe than sorry. Panic is fueled when there is a lack of information or access to the media.

The media has to take their share of the blame, too. Nothing sells news better than fear preying on public ignorance, especially for a disaster like a nuclear meltdown and the potential impact of mankind.

WHITE GOLD: Panic buying is nothing new in China.

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