BEIJING (NWN) – An apparently innocuous government recommendation for Chinese people to store essentials for emergencies has sparked panic and scattered examples of online speculation: whether China is going to war with Taiwan. Is?
The answer is probably no – most analysts agree that military hostilities are not imminent – but posts on social media reveal the possibility is on people’s minds and sparked a flurry of war-provoking comments.
Taiwan is a self-governing island of 24 million people that China considers a renegade province that should come under its rule. Tensions have risen sharply recently, with China sending an increasing number of warplanes near the island and the US selling weapons to Taiwan and deepening its ties with the government.
Most residents interviewed in the Chinese capital, Beijing, thought war was unlikely, but acknowledged rising tensions. They generally favored bringing Taiwan under Chinese rule by peaceful means, the official position of the long-ruling Communist Party of China.
“I don’t panic, but I think we should be more cautious about this than before,” said Hu Chunmei, who was walking the neighborhood.
According to local media, whether war is feared or not, there were scattered reports of runs on rice, noodles and cooking oil in some Chinese cities. A more immediate concern for some was the prospect of neighborhood lockdowns as the COVID-19 outbreak spread across several provinces.
The government moved swiftly to try to allay the fears with the assurance of adequate supplies. A bright yellow sign in the aisle of a supermarket in Beijing told customers to shop appropriately and not listen to rumors or stockpile goods.
The online speculation began with a notice posted by the commerce ministry on Monday evening, detailing plans to supply vegetables and other necessities for the winter and spring seasons and ensure stable prices. A line in it encouraged families to store certain necessities for daily living and emergencies.
This was enough to set off some billboards and a discussion on social media that the ministry might indicate people should stock up for the war.
China’s state media has heavily covered the escalating tensions with Taiwan, with China on the one hand and the US and Taiwan on the other, often sternly exchanged words.
Social commentator Xi Xuesi said, “It’s only natural to stir up some imagination.” “We must believe the government’s explanation, but the underlying concern deserves our consideration.”
He said populist views hailing for war do not represent majority opinion, but send a signal or warning to Taiwan.
Other developments fueled speculation of war. A man shared a screenshot of a list of emergency equipment recommended for families issued by the government in August in Xiamen, a coastal city near an outer Taiwanese island. An unverified report – refuted Wednesday by a military-affiliated social media account – said veterans were being called back into service to prepare for war.
It is difficult to estimate how many people interpreted the notice as a possible prelude to war, but the reaction was strong enough to inspire a response from state media the next day.
State-owned newspaper The Economic Daily said people’s imaginations should not be so wild, explaining that the advice was for those who may find themselves suddenly locked up due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Hu Zijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, blamed online speculation on the expansion of public opinion in times of tension.
“I do not believe that the country wants to send a signal to the public at this time through a notice from the Ministry of Commerce that the people need to ‘hurry up and prepare for war,'” he wrote.
Another Beijing resident, Zhang Xi, denied the possibility of war and advised patience in a dispute that broke out when Taiwan and China split during the civil war that brought Mao Zedong’s Communists to power in 1949.
“It is left over from history, and it is impossible to solve it immediately,” she said.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing, video producers Olivia Zhang and Carolyn Chen and photographer Ng Han Guan contributed to this report.