Beijing sold out of face masks and other stories of Chinese panic buying

“Beijing is completely out of face masks,” my friend depressingly told me today.     “I’m waiting on an order for some “high-tech ones” from Singapore to arrive.”  

The recent “Airpocalypse” has seen a mass rush on face masks and benefited pollution control and face mask companies on the stockmarket.

Incredibly, my friend has not opened her windows for 7 days (which can’t be too healthy either!) and so, like the rest of Beijing, has been bunkered down at home, wishfully hoping that the air quality inside is better than the crazy, crazy bad air quality outside.

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Normal life in Beijing

The herd behaviour of the Chinese population is ingrained from a young age.  China’s history and development is shaped by the constant theme of a massive population aggressively competing for scarce resources.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.  This is further amplified by a lack of trust in food security – fake eggs anyone?, scepticism of Government institutions and the terrible environment.

Chinese mass purchasing of uncontaminated overseas baby formula is another herd buy-up.  While it’s been going on for a long time, the press in Oz has finally cottoned on to the Chinese “baby formula racket“.  You know globalisation is in rude health when Chinese panic buying reaches the distant shores of Australia.

This trend will only continue.  The Chinese middle class is increasingly focused on lifestyle and demanding quality food.  As a result, Australian lobster, abalone, meat and dairy products will increasingly be sought after and following on, will become more expensive.

The mad rush for face masks and clean baby formula made me think of another famous product run.

This was the ridiculous “Great Salt Run” of Beijing of 2011.

It was a Friday afternoon and I clearly remember it because the scenes unfolding on my Bloomberg terminal were unbelievable.

I sat transfixed as row upon neat row of rollicking Japanese rice fields were subsumed by a wall of dark water carrying houses and debris on fire.

It looked like a video game – like a Sim City.  From the bird’s-eye view of the camera, cars appeared to be driving normally along highways, only to be swallowed by the creeping monster wave.

It was of course, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in the catastrophic Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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In Beijing at that moment, not many people were thinking about a potential nuclear incident.

The next morning I received a phone call from a friend in Australia, a retired Chemistry Professor “CP”.  I hadn’t spoken to him for a few months, so it was a little out of the blue, but ultimately very timely.

CP: “Have you seen the news on the nuclear reactor?”

Me: “Yes, but it’s unclear what’s happened.”

CP: “Don’t trust anything the Japanese government is saying about it.  Here’s what I think has happened.”

He then went on to explain the intricacies and mechanics of how nuclear reactors function and what they were probably doing at Fukushima at that very moment.  This was before any major news service had really started contemplating these issues.  Over the next few days his insight and understanding was way ahead of what most people were hearing in the news.

He ended our initial chat by saying, “Current news reports are still confusing…But if they can dump sea water and “drown” the reactor, then should be ok…but if I were you, I would get out of Beijing now!

As soon as I finished the phone call, I booked 2 tickets to leave Beijing for Monday 14  March 2011 – I knew that if a meltdown occurred and a toxic cloud was headed China’s way, there would be a mad rush to get out of Beijing.

Moreover, a stampede in China would be ugly, by virtue of the large amount of people and a population used to trampling over others for scarce resources.  In particular, my wife was pregnant and potential radiation exposure to an unborn baby was scary.

The next day, Sunday, at midday, the CP sent me this email:

Get ready to leave if the meltdown happens…Don’t know the wind data from Japan to China.  But the last time this happened in Chernobyl it spread all the way to UK and France.

I’ve warned my friend in Taiwan to get his family out of Taiwan…not good for kids like his granddaughter.

BTW the latest is that they have increased the evacuation zone from 3km to 10k…they mustn’t be that confident.  Also I hear the temp in the control room is 100C…hot hot hot!

Just think.  The longer they take and the hotter it gets the more coolant they need.

My guess is if nothing improves within the next few hours they will be looking at plan B…how to best contain a blowout / meltdown…just in case.

On Monday, I sent the CP the following viral email.  His response was typically pragmatic and sceptical of positive reports:

Nice text book scenario…assuming A follows B follows C etc.  Unfortunately they have now reached step Z.

For all those nuke boys who think that the radiation is not serious (yes N16 has a very short half life) they should replace the operators and go in to do the job.

This morning I was asking myself what the hell were the 3 or 4 operators doing around the building at reactor 1 when it exploded on Saturday?  Why were they there instead of the control room?

Could it be that they had to do “manual checks” because their instrument gauges were out of whack?  I don’t know but to me it’s stupid to be out there just to get blown up by the explosion.

And why are they adding boron (captures neutrons) if as they claim the control rods have done the job to stop fission and the problem is cooling the “amber fire” only?

…As I’ve said before, there are too many unanswered questions and I can only rely on my evaluation based on chemistry.

So although we would like the step-by-step analysis in the email to happen, I am pessimistically fearful about what lies beneath all the info.

Hope I am wrong!

Take a train to HK.  There will be a no fly zone enforced!

Needless to say, I was not being reassured.  Despite the CP’s prescient analysis, as Fukushima had not yet turned into the full-blown disaster it would later become, we decided to remain in China for the mean time and rebooked our flights for Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Fukushima situation deteriorated and we decided that my wife would definitely leave, while I would stay, but with a plane seat as hopeful insurance.

Over the next week viral SMS’ flew around China and startled the masses.

One day I was waiting for a taxi and noticed that as each taxi pulled up, people kept getting out lumping multiple bags of salt.

When I caught the elevator up to my office, I was stuck between people lugging their own sodium chloride too.

Walking into my office, the receptionist greeted me while cradling her own bag of salt!

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It won’t save you from radiation!

The “Great Salt Run of Beijing” was in full flight.  All across Beijing, citizens manically bought bags of salt.  Amazingly, even the shelves at the expat supermarkets were cleaned out.

This behaviour was completely misinformed because iodised salt ain’t going to save you from a radioactive cloud.

This habitual mob behaviour essentially reflects a form of hedging.  Even though the action may be irrational, by engaging the participant protects themselves from the downside – behaviour which is very common in China.

It’s also why the Chinese Government is very concerned about technology which allows information to spread rapidly.  Hence, the official banning of Facebook and Twitter (though note that China has the world’s most active Twitter users) and the censorship of Weibo.

One issue I am grappling with is what this means for the development of China’s information / innovation economy? An information-based economy relies on the free flow of information and the ability for ideas to cross-pollinate.

The Chinese Government appears supportive of the development of the Chinese internet economy.  But will the censorship and banning of certain websites and the lack of freedom of speech shackle this industry?  And will China be able to effectively compete in an information economy age when such barriers are present?

What do you think?

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