China’s Salt Rush

As more and more news outlets are reporting (e.g. the Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report), Chinese have been panic-buying salt for fear about radiation from Japan.

The reason given is an (erroneous) belief that iodinated salt will protect against harmful radiation (radioactive iodine) which may spread from the Fukushima nuclear plant, news of which are not promising. Plus, there is a fear that radioactive fallout would contaminate future sea salt. The first I had heard of it was a mention of QQ news this morning stating just those pieces of “information.”

I’m rather fascinated by the background, though, and a “deep description” of culture – or at least the beginnings of that – has to go farther than just some news item. It goes much deeper than just the immediate concern about what’s happening at Fukushima. More and more, but only recently becoming clear to me, the instances of just how concerned many Chinese seem to be about 辐射, radiation, piled on:

  • All the female colleagues around here who got pregnant almost completely stopped using their mobile phones out of fear that their “rays” could harm the child in their womb.
  • A student stated that one of the things he did in order to live healthily was to use the hands-free speaker function of his mobile phone, so that he wouldn’t be holding it too close to his head.
  • There was also a mention of TV sets potentially being dangerous due to the “radiation” they emit…

Take that and add an actual radiological emergency – or something that could continue into one, (even if most likely only around the immediately affected area – and later on, through the food chain) – and emotions run high.

And that, in fact, is not all the cultural background.

China has been having quite enough food scandals to have made people extremely wary of their food supply, so any news on health danger surrounding food and related items is due to receive strong attention.

That China is calling on Japan to be more forthcoming with information is not exactly helpful, either, when the Chinese information policy itself is typically based on “need to know”/ constructivist silence. As I mentioned in my last post, even to people who are in Japan, it is not quite clear how forthcoming Japanese authorities are with information – and Chinese are well-attuned to such a situation.

Things like the above steps taken in order to protect against “radiation” are also likely to happen because they are steps that you can actually take yourself, providing a measure of (perceived) control. It is an issue, both good and bad, in much environmental behavior.

Here in south-central China, by the way, I haven’t yet seen anything like stockpiling of salt. As usual, “the Chinese” is easily one of the most problematic terms…
[UPDATE: Well, too soon. I was told that there was some of that rush for salt here, too.]

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  1. Ellis, you’re beating me at my own game – even I wasn’t devil’s advocate enough to realize the possibility of that “high in salt”-marketing twist.. Have you become cynical about the US, perchance?
    (And there, I’ve been wondering if Americans like the slow carb-diet basically because/when it means eating more meat…)

  2. ellis

    McDonald’s could start marketing their foods as ‘high in salt,’ which they are, but proclaim this as a health benefit to protect against radiation.

    There are all sorts of things humans believe and do that seem silly, but I just remind myself that smoking was once de rigeur until it was proven to kill you or make you really sick. So maybe cell phone rays could be the next cigarette.

    And yes, probably saying “the Chinese” are stockpiling means that out of the supermarkets they asked in a few choice cities, a few had stories of sold-out salt. Go figure.

  3. As usual, you’ve raised so many important issues here. It strikes me as interesting that China has been labeled somewhere in the “middle” on the “Uncertainty Avoidance” value (risk)–as compared to Japan that scores very high in working to avoid risk. But I wonder if there’s a difference in tolerance for financial risk etc. versus something like radiation and its potential harm to life.

    The call from China and the U.S. upon Japan to be more “open”…hmmm…now that’s another whole can of worms. (I realize I added the “U.S.” but the same thing has been occurring to me from here….)

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