In China, panic buyers prepare for the end of the world

As December 21 approaches people make their final preparations for the 'end of the world' by stockpiling essentials and building shelters

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 9:50am

Candles are suddenly a hot commodity in Longchang county, Neijiang city.

Panic buyers seeking candles and matches have been flowing into Luo Huanlin's small grocery near the county government headquarters ever since a rumour began circulating that a three-day blackout would strike on December 21, the date on which some people believe the world will end.

He heard the dire predictions repeated in tea houses, at bus stations and across mahjong tables. Some speculated that the blackout would last more than a week and that even cigarette lighters would cease to ignite. Only matches would catch fire.

Luo paid the jittery shoppers little mind until a few government officials joined their ranks. That deepened his fear.

"The words moved as fast as a storm cloud and suddenly everyone, from peasants in fields to government officials in armchairs, was living in its shadow," said Luo. "Nobody asked or cared about why. It was contrary to everything we learnt in school, I know, but when everyone was talking about it, we started to worry."

The Sichuan candle rush is just one of the many similar episodes unfolding across the world as anxiety builds over the approaching supposed end of the ancient Mayan calendar - predicted by some to portend the apocalypse.

Fears have been building on the mainland, where scientific awareness lags behind developed countries like the United States and Japan by nearly three decades, according to a government survey two years ago. For example, only three per cent of those surveyed knew that antibiotics were useless against viruses.

In Nanjing, Jiangsu, a 54-year-old retired engineer - convinced the end of the world was near - recently sold her apartment and borrowed money from friends, according to the Modern Express News.

The woman told her family she wanted to raise two million yuan (HK$2.46 million) to help drop-out pupils return to school in impoverished remote areas, without explaining how schooling would be useful after the apocalypse. Her husband, a university professor, could not talk her out of the plan.

The 2012 doomsday jitters started as far back as three years ago, when a carpenter from Chongqing spent all his savings - more than 110,000 yuan - on food and drinks after hearing the doomsday rumour from friends. His wife left him, taking their daughter. That same year, two brothers in Zhejiang - believing they had just three years to live - quit their factory jobs and became highway bandits. They robbed a dozen victims in less than two months, mostly women, spending the money at restaurants and internet cafes.

The government has employed brute force in its efforts to crack down on the doomsday rumours. Seven people who passed out doomsday pamphlets on Saturday on a bus in Xian, Shaanxi province, were arrested at the next stop. Police said they would face criminal charges for disrupting social stability.

On the same day, police detained more than 30 people in Jinjiang, Fujian province, for distributing doomsday pamphlets.

It was unclear whether the handouts contained additional information likely to be seen as political sensitive, such as information promoting the Falun Gong religious sect or calling for an end to Communist Party rule.

Some businesses have tried to cash in on the anxiety., China's biggest e-commerce platform, said it would slash the price of many items by 50 per cent in advance of the coming apocalypse, using the promotion slogan: "Let's all get crazy before doomsday".

A businessman in Yiwu told state media this week that he had sold dozens of stainless-steel survival pods - at one to five million yuan each - to use as emergency shelters during floods and other disasters.

Many buyers came from big cities such as Beijing. A businessman from the coal-rich Shanxi province bought 15 of the devices. Orders came from as far away as New Zealand. One young woman attracted thousands of followers to her Sina Weibo account with a so-called doomsday diary documenting her efforts to build a shelter in the mountains of Guizhou. But when she started appearing half naked in some of the photos, some became suspicious she was just trying to attract attention.

A private company owner said on weibo that he would give his employees a couple of days off because he expected that even if they came to work they would not focus on their jobs.

Meanwhile, "if the Mayans were reliable" became an internet meme that internet users employed to share how they would like to spend their last moments.