Chinese families have been encouraged to stockpile daily necessities, prompting panic-buying, amid surging vegetable prices linked to recent extreme weather, fears of supply shortages and an ongoing Covid outbreak.
A notice posted on the website of the Ministry of Commerce late on Monday urged local authorities to stabilise prices and families “to store a certain amount of daily necessities as needed to meet daily life and emergencies”.
It prompted some alarm and speculation, including that it related to increasing tensions with Taiwan. Related hashtags were viewed more than 18m times.
“As soon as this news came out, all the old people near me went crazy panic-buying in the supermarket,” wrote one user on Weibo.
State media urged calm and Zhu Xiaoliang, a senior commerce ministry official, told the broadcaster CCTV “the supply of daily necessities is sufficient everywhere” but varying explanations were offered for the notice.
Some said the commerce department often releases such warnings in the weeks before national holidays while the People’s Daily said the ministry had issued its instruction earlier this year because of natural disasters, the surge in vegetable prices and recent Covid cases.
The Economic Daily, a state-backed newspaper, warned residents against having “too much of an overactive imagination” but also said the directive was linked to the outbreak and was to ensure people were prepared in the event of a lockdown.
About 500 cases of the Delta variant have been recorded across at least 16 of China’s 31 provinces. Authorities have enacted localised lockdowns, halted movement and travel, and launched mass testing. On Sunday more than 30,000 people were stopped from leaving Shanghai Disneyland until they were all tested, after one case was detected in a woman who might have visited.
Despite reassurances, some were still sceptical. A Weibo user commented there had been no warnings to stock up at the outset of the 2020 pandemic.
“This is the first time such a reminder notice has been issued! ! I’m a little scared.”
“It is definitely not a normal reminder,” said another. “Reminding us to stockpile will inevitably make the market supply and demand unstable, price fluctuations, and cause panic among some people … It is very likely to be a special situation.”
Extreme weather last month destroyed crops in China’s biggest vegetable growing region, Shandong, threatening this year’s efforts to increase supplies before the lunar new year holiday early next year.
Last week, prices of cucumbers, spinach and broccoli had more than doubled from early October. Spinach was more expensive than some cuts of pork at 16.67 yuan ($2.60) per kg, a vegetable price index in Shouguang, a trading hub in Shandong, indicated.
Although prices have eased in recent days, economists expect a significant year-on-year increase in consumer price inflation for October, the first in five months.
The commerce ministry said local authorities should buy vegetables that could be stored well in advance and also strengthen emergency delivery networks. Information about prices and supply and demand of commodities should be released in a timely manner to stabilise people’s expectations, it added.
China also plans to release vegetable reserves “at an appropriate time” to counter rising prices, according to a state TV report on Monday. It is not clear which vegetables China holds in reserves and how big those reserves are.