Poison salt, fish and no Geiger counters: China struggles with fallout of anti-Japan hysteria
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First salt, then radiation detectors, now seafood.
Beijing was quick last week to cancel all seafood imports out of Japan after Tokyo’s scary release of nuclear-flavoured wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant.
On Weibo, a single hashtag (#日本核污染水下午排入海洋) damning Japan’s move has been seen by more than 20 million eyeballs over the weekend alone.
Thanks to years of anti-Japanese rhetoric, China is going a bit nuclear in the wake of Japan’s decision to start releasing wastewater from the broken Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant hitting Chinese social media platforms.
State media was at first excited about the huge spike in searches on (China’s Google) Baidu and on the e-commerce platform Taobao for nuclear detectors that can be used on imports. They jumped by 232%, according to reports which – ahem – started leaking out late last week.
Several businesses selling nuclear radiation detectors said their sales surged on Thursday, shouted the shouty state-run English language version of the tabloid Global Times.
Meanwhile, salt products on Chinese e-commerce giant platform JD.com were marked as sold-out on Thursday, with the exception of a number of imported products and sea salt, the Global Times learned.
Panic buying before a lockdown? No, those days are over. It’s hoarding salt in light of Japan’s move to start discharging treated Fukushima water into the ocean, which has sparked consumer concerns over salt supplies combined with idea that salt can help protect against radiation pic.twitter.com/BLfgvGBRzT
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) August 25, 2023
But now Beijing is trying to take it all back, flooding social media with hashtags that assure salt is both safe and plentiful and that the Japanese – China’s former colonial occupiers with a well-earned repute for atrocity – cannot harm them for now.
But, a run on salt is a new one for a country beset by a media system which is today looking more North Korean than even Chinese. The deliterious effects of the bubble China finds itself in are for all to see as concerns about the impact of Fukushima water on food safety sees online talk moving swiftly from the amoral Japanese poisoning the oceans to the idea that salt is therefore going to be poisonous with radioactivty.
The swiftly depleted salt stores also point to the other cost of lying to your audience. There’s the outdated belief that iodized salt is an antidote for radiation sickness. Alas, it is not.
Now there’s an effort to haul it all back in, before the hysteria hits the fragile Chinese economy.
This video of a Chinese owner of Japanese restaurant destroying his own place went viral on the 26th. Now the same guy is accused of creating hype for personal gain. I think you can see the entire video is pretty orchestrated. Official media channels also shared it,.. https://t.co/J5GXBW7VLb
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) August 28, 2023
China’s decision to ban all Japanese seafood – as online discussions of Japan’s Fukushima discharge of nuclear waste water strike increasingly shrill notes – could well backfire, according to analysts speaking to the SCMP.
“Clearly, Beijing is making its displeasure very visible with the ban, even if the effect on Japan is not known or knowable at this point. Some of the response from China seems tied to their existing suspicions toward Japan,” Chong Jia Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday.
The speed and height of China’s anxieties around the issue provides an unnerving insight into how willing China’s Japanese-doubting population is whenever Japan appears in need of a lesson in humility.
But on the balance sheet, Beijing hardly needs to see more foreign direct investment go out the window, or the acceleration of its deteriorating bilateral trade relationships.
According to government data, China is the single largest destination for Japanese seafood exports, with both China and Hong Kong accounting for 22.5% and 19.5% of Japan’s total share by value. But as often happens, Japan’s part in China’s total industry is but a drop in the ocean.
In fact, China’s largest foreign producer of aquatic products is Ecuador, with Russia, India and Vietnam offering strong backup.
Last fiscal year the value of seafood exports from Australia to China totalled $328mn, making China our leading export market and accounting for almost 27% of the total value of Australian seafood exports, yet we don’t even rate a mention.
And the Tassie lobster ban is still on.
Meanwhile on the very successful online grocer platform, Meituan Maicai, all kinds of many salt products were displayed as being out of stock. Some other online platforms also showed low inventory warnings for some salt products.
Since Tuesday last, when Japan formally announced its decision to start releasing wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific, the chatter has been dominating Chinese social media platforms, says Manya Koetse who runs the fabulous What’s on Weibo.
“It’s not that often that you see such huge topics on Chinese social media, swelling like a tidal wave, sweeping through threads, comments, and spanning various sectors of society — engaging state media, businesses, influencers, celebrities, and the public.
Across Weibo, Manya sees grocery stores experienced an influx of people stockpiling salt, with some even reselling it.
Vanmiddag vertelde ik bij @NPORadio1 @bbvpro kort iets over hoe paniek ontstond onder Chinezen nadat Japan op donderdag begon met het lozen van Fukushima afvalwater in zee. Zo ontstond er een run op zout, wat resulteerde in lege schappen. Luister hier: https://t.co/xi0AxlFkhZ pic.twitter.com/aZrcSFNL5N
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) August 28, 2023
“Individuals queued for hours to purchase a bag of salt, and some headed to salt manufacturers for bulk purchases.”
“Some China-based Japanese restaurants made headlines for removing their Japanese decorations, advertising with their ‘international’ cuisine – Our salmon’s from Norway! The sea urchin’s from Russia! – or just openly telling customers they’re really not Japanese.”
She says one popular Weibo post joked – “the Japanese restaurant downstairs has finally admitted they’re not really Japanese.”
The ripple effect included consumers boycotting Japanese beauty products. On e-commerce platforms, tearful fish-sellers faced worries about their business future due to contamination fears.
Over the top? Manya says wake up and smell the salts.
“When you mix that with collective memories of war and humiliation, profound anti-Japanese sentiments in a deeply cyber-nationalistic environment, a media landscape where state reports on the hazards of Fukushima water amplify existing eco-anxieties, skepticism toward the G7, and a society where official narratives aren’t always trusted and individuals take their own safety precautions..
“…you witness a rather explosive scenario, culminating in public unease, panic buying, and social media overflowing with hostile comments targeting Japan.”
Which is why there’s little point in Beijing even acknowledging that the wastewater release has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The fix is in.
Over the weekend, Manya tracked state-led hashtags dispersed widely in an attempt to put out their own fires.
Hashtags promising that there’s heaps of salt about. Hashtags urging people to take some deep breaths and not to get too anxious and hashtags promising that domestic fish are still good to go.
Japan’s not mucking about though. Last week they put out warnings to any of its citizens in China ‘to speak in a low voice’ for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
The Japanese Embassy in Beijing has urged its staff and any Japanese to remain vigilant.