Food stocks advisory in eastern China misleadingly cited as evidence new lockdown imminent

Authorities in eastern China urged locals on December 1 to keep food supplies at home for 10 days in a routine advisory issued every winter. But social media users misleadingly shared the news with claims it is preparation for Covid-style lockdowns amid a surge in respiratory illness. There is no evidence a fresh round of lockdowns is imminent. The annual food stocks notice pre-dates the Covid pandemic and authorities said it "should not be over-interpreted".

"Virus out of control, locking down the city again? Yiwu City asked residents to stock up on food for 10 days!" reads a post in Chinese from December 4, 2023 on X.

It speculates that China will bring back its zero-Covid policy  of mass lockdowns, constant testing and strict quarantine periods that sought to stamp out any emerging outbreaks.

China rolled back the restrictions at the beginning of December 2022 after they sparked popular unrest and hammered the world's second-largest economy. 

The post claims the announcement by authorities in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, as evidence the policy will return.

It also credits the source of the information as Taiwanese broadcaster SET News, which published the same article on its website on December 3.

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken December 28, 2023

The claims surfaced amid a surge in respiratory illnesses across northern China (archived link).

Similar posts claiming fresh lockdowns were coming also spread in posts on YouTube here, here and here. Malaysian newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau also shared the claim on Facebook.

"Lockdown again," reads one Chinese-language comment.

Another wrote: "China is spreading the virus to the world again."

However, AFP found no evidence a lockdown is imminent. The announcement about food stocks is a long-term practice in several cities across Zhejiang and can be traced back to before the Covid pandemic.

Annual practice

A keyword search on Baidu found the state-run Jinan Times published a report about the notice from Yiwu's Bureau of Commerce suggesting residents "save more than 10 days of food stocks" (archived link).

It led to the spread of misleading claims about an impending lockdown after it was posted on December 1, 2023.

The bureau told Jinan Times it has taken down the report.

The bureau said the notice was issued as an annual practice that "shouldn't be over-interpreted", state media outlet China National Radio reported on December 5 (archived link).

Further keyword searches led to an announcement by China's National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration published on December 5, 2018, years before the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 (archived link).

It lays out what it calls Zhejiang's first food security policy, focused on reserves, distribution and emergency response.

"Canteens in state authorities, schools, hospitals, large and medium-sized enterprises and other establishments should store rations that will last more than 15 days. Households are encouraged to store rations in accordance with their needs during normal times," it says.

Several cities in the province soon followed the announcement's lead and rolled out similar advisories.

Jiaxing published a Food Storage Initiative in December 2019 to "raise awareness of potential dangers, and introduce the concept of food storage to thousands of households". It suggested urban households "aim to stock food for more than 10 days" (archived link).

Hangzhou, Lishui and Pingyang all followed suit (archived links here, here and here).

A keyword search by AFP on the website of the Zhejiang Health Commission found no relevant announcement about reintroducing a lockdown, as of January 2, 2024 (archived link).

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