Lack of trust blamed by academics for salt rush

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am

A lack of security and trust in the central government fuelled this week's salt-buying frenzy, mainland academics say as they try to explain the phenomenon that emptied supermarket shelves of supplies in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.

Once ubiquitous and inexpensive, salt became a rare commodity on Thursday amid rumours that iodised salt can help ward off radiation poisoning - part of the swirl of misinformation afflicting the nation in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis.

The panic continued yesterday although prices began to stabilise after the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Commerce and the China National Salt Industry Corp gave assurances that supplies were abundant.

On the mainland, more than 80 million tonnes of salt are produced annually while annual sales are more than 8 million tonnes.

Hu Xingdou, a commentator at Beijing University of Science and Technology, said the frenzy reflected the psychology of a nation which had long experienced instability and insecurity, from war to famine.

'Chinese people have experienced too many disasters, from natural calamities to wars, in recent memory and they often felt helpless whenever such catastrophes occurred,' Hu said.

People's distrust of the government also contributed to the buying sprees, he said.

Peng Peng, , a researcher with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, agreed.

'In this case, they would prefer to keep the commodity at home rather than in the hands of society and it reflects a lack of confidence in the supply system of authorities,' Peng said.

He said Chinese people were relatively inexperienced in handling possible leakage of nuclear radioactive materials in the environment, so fear was easily triggered in society.

'It's also because Chinese people rarely enjoyed stable and peaceful social development as the country's history was filled with unrest, wars, conflicts and tension,' he said.

He also believed that the fast pace at which the information spread, through online portals and mobile phones, also helped compound public fears.

Yang Ruidong, a psychiatrist with Guangzhou-based Baiyun Psychology Hospital, said the panic-buying of salt reflected two basic psychological phenomena.

'It is very natural for people to feel panic or fear when they have to deal with terrible emergencies that they have never seen before,' he said. 'They will feel helpless and anxious for no one can tell them how to solve the problem.'

He said the panic also showed how Chinese people tended to succumb to the herd mentality in times of crisis. 'The more helpless they feel, the more herd mentality they will have, for many of them believe that what the majority do must be right.'

Yang said no single cause could trigger such a psychological phenomenon, while many mainland internet users claimed that the panic reflected people's distrust of the government.

In Hong Kong, however, salt-buying hysteria vanished yesterday, as bags reappeared in supermarkets and shops across the city.

The price of a 450 gram pack of table salt also fell from the 'extraordinary' level of HK$10 to HK$30 on Thursday to about HK$3, which was still one dollar more than usual.

While a few shoppers admitted that they were stockpiling salt as they bought one or two packs despite having some supplies at home, a housewife outside a grocery store in Ma On Shan said the salt-buying craze was a joke.

'We are not running after oranges today, are we?' she said, as she saw a few passers-by with bags of the fruit in their hands.

Urging Hongkongers to stay rational, Dr Ivan Mak Wing-chit, from the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists, said while rumours should be condemned, it was panic among people that triggered the scramble for salt and other foods.

'Every rumour sounds reasonable in one way or another, and this can be magnified and lead to collective behaviour. As the rumour spreads, it snowballs into fear,' Mak said.

Referring to the salt-buying frenzy, he said that, in the face of a threat, people would want to do something to make themselves less vulnerable to danger.

'As in this case of panic-buying, people shared information including rumours, bought salt together or secured more salt for their family members,' he said.

Tonnes of the stuff

China's salt production exceeds consumption ten-fold. Salt consumed each year, in millions of tonnes: 8