What A Chinese Salt-Buying Frenzy Can Tell Us About Chinese-Japanese Relations

The Chinese National Salt Industry Group recently issued a statement that salt supply was stable, discouraging over-buying as major e-commerce retailers and grocery stores are selling out of the product. The panic-spike in salt demand is a result of Japan’s officially commencement of a 30-year long process to discharge treated wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant into the Pacific Ocean; it is a popular superstition in China that the iodine in salt can protect against radiation. Chinese demand for salt experienced a similar surge in 2011 when the Fukushima plant was damaged by a tsunami.

The Chinese government, which has been opposed to the wastewater release plan for months, promptly responded to its initiation with a total ban on Japanese seafood exports, citing concerns of radiation contamination. Japan, in response, denounced the ban as “totally unacceptable” in its counterargument to the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.). The statement reflects the Japanese government’s increasing attempts to quell concerns and disinformation surrounding its ocean-discharge plan; both the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant, and the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) concluded the plan would not harm the surrounding population or environment. Although the radioactive material tritium will be released, estimates place the concentration at levels significantly lower than the World Health Organization’s drinking water limit. However, China continues to strongly oppose the plan, claiming that the Japanese government has failed to provide sufficient scientific evidence for its safety.

According to the British technology firm Logically, Chinese state media have widely circulated criticism and concerns regarding the Fukushima water discharge through paid Facebook and Instagram advertisements, as well as mainstream news. Many of these ads either fail to include all the relevant information, spread disinformation, or approach conspiracy theories, with elements of broader anti-Japanese sentiment. Nevertheless, they appear to be working. Japanese businesses and offices have received thousands of angry calls from Chinese area codes, protests against the plan have been held in both China and South Korea, and Chinese internet users are calling for the seafood ban to be expanded to include other major Japanese exports, like cosmetics.

As the bans affect only 0.17% of overall Japanese exports, they are projected to have negligible economic impact overall. However, significant damage to the Japanese fishing community’s reputation has put a nearly $600 million market at risk. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishia announced 20.7 billion yen ($141 million) in emergency funds to support Japanese fishermen and seafood exporters.

Beyond their economic implications, the Chinese ban and media campaigns are indicators of Chinese-Japanese relations in a changing geopolitical landscape. China’s staunch opposition to the ocean-discharge plan raises many questions. Not only does Chinese opposition overlook multiple reports that the ocean-discharge plan is safe, but Chinese nuclear plants already discharge more wastewater at even higher levels of radiation than the Fukushima plant will.

Thus, China’s opposition is more likely to be motivated by a political agenda than by humanitarian interest. Japanese and Chinese relations are currently fraught with tension over Chinese activity in the South China sea and Japanese alliances with the U.S. and E.U. Just this past August, Japan, the U.S., and South Korea issued a joint statement denouncing Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, which China condemned in response. Some analysts believe that by instigating controversy over the plant, China aims to dislodge Japan’s credibility, as well as that of other actors supporting the plan (like the U.S, the E.U, and the U.N.), and to promote a narrative that such actors place their self-interests over humanitarian and environmental concerns. This would align with the P.R.C.’s broader efforts to challenge Western predominance over the global order and to counter Western influence in the region.

What is especially concerning in this case is China’s use of a targeted media campaign to fuel and direct public sentiment on an issue. This is an important trend to watch, particularly in extremely centralized countries like China, where the government controls nearly all domestic media and any foreign news critical of the government is censored.

As the controversy over the Fukushima plant continues to unfold, analysts should continue to look on media that draws on anti-Japanese sentiment to incite opposition as a sign of escalating tensions. The weaponization of state media is an increasingly common tactic employed to fuel or justify conflict; policy-makers must thus rise to the growing challenge if they hope to confront and mitigate the trend.