China’s storage advice sparks speculation of Taiwan war

A seemingly innocuous government notice encouraging the Chinese to stock up on necessities for a possible emergency sparked panic buying and online speculation almost immediately: Will China go to war with Taiwan?

The answer may not be – most analysts believe military hostilities are not imminent – but posts on social media show the possibility is on people’s minds and sparked a flurry of comments calling for war.

Taiwan is a self-governing island with a population of 24 million that China considers a breakaway province to be ruled by. Tensions have risen sharply recently, as China has sent an increasing number of warplanes on sorties near the island, and the United States has sold arms to Taiwan and deepened its ties with the government.

Most residents interviewed in the Chinese capital, Beijing, thought war was unlikely but acknowledged the rising tensions. They generally favored bringing Taiwan under Chinese rule by peaceful means, which is the official position of the long-ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“I don’t panic but I think we should be more vigilant about this than in the past,” said Hu Chunmei, who was touring the neighborhood.

War fears or not, there have been sporadic reports of bursts of rice, noodles and cooking oil in some Chinese cities, according to local media. The most immediate concern for some was the prospect of neighborhood closures as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads to many counties.

The government moved quickly to try to allay fears with assurances of adequate supplies. A bright yellow sign in the aisle of a Beijing supermarket told customers to buy reasonably and not listen to rumors or stock up on merchandise.

Online speculation began with a Commerce Department notification posted on Monday evening about a plan to ensure supply and stable prices of vegetables and other necessities for the winter and spring seasons. The line in it encouraged families to stock up on some necessities for daily life and emergencies.

This was enough to trigger some hoarding and discussion on social media that the ministry could signal that people should stock up for war.

The escalating tensions with Taiwan have been extensively covered by Chinese state media, including harsh words being exchanged between China on one side and the United States and Taiwan on the other.

“It’s natural that it sparked some imagination,” said social commentator Shi Shusi. “We should believe the government’s explanations, but the underlying concern deserves our consideration.”

He said that populist views encouraging war do not represent the majority opinion but rather send a signal or a warning to Taiwan.

Other developments fueled speculation of the war. One person shared a screenshot of the list of emergency equipment recommended for families, released by the government in August in the port city of Xiamen near a remote Taiwanese island. An unverified report – denied Wednesday by an army social media account – said the veterans had been called in to prepare for combat.

It is difficult to gauge how many people interpreted the notice as a possible prelude to war, but the reaction was strong enough to spur a state media response the next day.

The Economic Daily, a government-owned newspaper, said people’s imaginations shouldn’t be too wild, explaining that the advice was aimed at people who might suddenly find themselves locked up due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, blamed online speculation on inflating public opinion during the time of tension.

“I don’t think the state wants to send a signal to the public at this time with a notice from the Commerce Department that people need to ‘hurry up and prepare for war,'” he wrote.

Zhang Xi, another Beijing resident, ruled out the possibility of war and advised patience in a dispute that stretched to the time of the split of Taiwan and China during the civil war that brought communist Mao Zedong to power in 1949.

“These are remnants of history, and it is impossible to solve them immediately,” she said.

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Associated Press researcher Yu Bing, video producers Olivia Zhang and Caroline Chen and photographer Ng Han Guan contributed to this report.

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