A government call to stockpile food has led some Chinese people to believe a full-on war with Taiwan is coming, as people bought extra groceries, hardtack, and flashlights to prepare for a nasty battle that could drag the United States into conflicts should it actually happen.
China’s Ministry of Commerce on Tuesday encouraged families to stockpile essential supplies, prompting panic-buying across the country. People have speculated that authorities were anticipating a shortage of food during winter time or prolonged city lockdowns as the authorities try to keep COVID-19 numbers at zero.
But many others were convinced that the Chinese military would soon invade Taiwan and bring the island, which Beijing claims to be its own territory, under Communist Party rule.
“Taking Taiwan might only take half a day to one day, maximum three to five days,” a resident in the central city of Zhengzhou, who only gave his surname Wang, told VICE World News. “But if foreign hostile forces place a blockade against our country, the goods would not be able to enter China, and prices would go up.”
The frantic response reflects the increasingly fraught relationship between people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s propaganda on making Taiwan part of China and achieving “national rejuvenation” has fueled talk of war among its people, and authorities sometimes struggle to rein in rumors about an upcoming invasion.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait have in the past months received intense media coverage in and outside of China. The Chinese military last month sent a record number of fighter jets to Taiwan’s air defence zone. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently confirmed U.S. troops’ presence on the island, while a top U.S. general said this week that Washington could “absolutely” defend Taiwan, although he did not expect an attack in the next two years.
Wang, a 30-year-old home appliance salesman, said he had in the past few months spent more than 1,000 Chinese yuan ($156) putting together an emergency kit that included a multifunctional shovel, a compass, a gas mask, a fire starter, a whistle, and a fire extinguisher.
Wang said he also recently bulk-bought rice, flour, and cooking oil that would feed his family of eight through spring. He said the supplies would be needed in the case of an economic crisis or a war over Taiwan. Although Zhengzhou was some 800 miles away from the Taiwan Strait, Wang said it was a transportation hub and a potential target for enemy forces.
Wang said his family, living right next to a railway station, could be vulnerable. “If the city was partly or fully damaged in a war, you would have no choice but to move into the mountains, and you would need these devices,” he said.
People like Wang said the pro-unification rhetoric promoted by state media suggested a war could be imminent. Last week, a Chinese official in charge of Taiwan affairs said the island’s revenues would be used on improving livelihoods after unification, a comment that trended on the microblogging site. Nationalistic accounts have also promoted news that the Taiwanese defense ministry is drafting a war survival handbook.
This week, people have shared a viral article telling Chinese people where to invest in properties in Taiwan after the island became China’s “Taiwan province.” A city in eastern China handed out defense emergency kits to some residents. A fabricated text message asking reservists to be prepared for a draft was also widely circulating in chat groups.
These posts have prompted nationalistic cheering but also chatter about potentially disastrous conflicts. On Tuesday, “hardtack” was listed as a hot search term on shopping site Taobao, and many social media users said their elderly parents had purchased extra supplies just in case.
“Is our country really going to take Taiwan?” a Weibo user wrote on Tuesday. “My auntie has called my mom to stock up on rice together.”
Authorities later tried to quash the rumors. A social media outlet affiliated with China’s People’s Liberation Army, Junzhengping, on Wednesday warned the soldier mobilization rumors could mislead the public and bring “unpredictable consequences.”
State media have asked citizens not to read too much into the Ministry of Commerce’s stockpile call, which was aimed at preparing people for COVID-19 lockdowns. The ministry also stressed that China’s food supply was sufficient.
Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan expert with the Australian National University, said Chinese state media had been using such unification calls to drum up support for the Communist leadership in the mainland, without explicit mention of a military invasion.
“They are doing it tactically with plausible deniability,” Sung told VICE World News. “They talk about what’s going to happen after unification. So for some, it may sound like unification is happening soon, and we should rally behind our commander-in-chief, and that it’s time for unity internally rather than dissent or diversity.”
The public in Taiwan were in general not too alarmed by the recent spats, Sung said. Taiwanese people have been living under risk of war since the Communist Party came to power in the mainland in 1949 to form the People’s Republic of China, and forced the Republic of China government to move to Taipei. A recent poll suggested 64 percent of Taiwanese adults did not think a war was possible, while about one in four respondents believed Beijing would invade “sooner or later.”
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