Tea Leaf Nation

Thank You, but We Prefer the Salt Monopoly

Chinese netizens fear that the end of government control will only bring more food scandals.

Getty Images
Getty Images

China is the world’s biggest consumer of salt — one kitchen staple that has so far remained unadulterated by the country’s many food safety scandals. But now Chinese netizens are worried that is about to change.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced on Nov. 20 that it will end the state monopoly on salt that has existed since 1950, according to a report by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). State media is touting the move as a step toward the market reforms that President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party have pushed as China’s export-oriented economy slows.

Yet the country’s netizens are far from rejoicing at what appears to be a step to rein in the power of China’s hulking state-owned enterprises. Rather, the question roiling China’s online social spaces after CCTV’s announcement seemed to be what will happen when profit-hungry fraudsters, eager to make a quick buck, jump into the newly open salt market.

"There will soon be frequent cases of industrial salt" — far cheaper than table salt — "being mixed with edible salt," went one popular comment on Weibo, China’s huge, Twitter-like microblogging platform. Another user wrote, "Soon the media will be putting out articles called ‘How to tell industrial salt from table salt.’" The topic seemed to resonate; "salt monopoly abolished" became a top-trending hashtag on Weibo, and one related post on CCTV’s official Weibo account quickly garnered over 1,300 comments. One user commented cynically, "I’ve eaten all kinds of fake products; now I will finally have the opportunity to eat fake salt!"

In the past decade, frequent food safety scandals have rocked China, ravaging consumer confidence in Chinese food products. In late 2008, six infants died and 294,000 fell ill after domestic infant milk powder manufacturers secretly added melamine, a chemical toxic to humans, to help milk pass nutrition tests. The scandal sparked a massive public outcry and led many Chinese consumers to abandon Chinese-made milk powder altogether, perhaps permanently — in 2013, five years after the original scandal, so many mainland Chinese made the trek to Hong Kong to buy imported foreign milk powder that the local government imposed a customs limit of two cans per person to prevent shortages in the city. Scandals involving "gutter oil" — putrid leftover cooking oil thrown out by restaurants only to be salvaged, rebottled, and sold on the cheap to street food vendors — have also gained notoriety around the country. In January 2014, authorities even handed a suspended death sentence to one schemer whose gutter oil ring did an estimated $8 million in illicit sales. Sensational food safety violations pop up regularly: bleached chicken feet in September 2014, cat meat sold as rabbit meat in October 2013, and dumplings containing insecticide in January 2008.

To be sure, China’s ongoing food safety issues stem from a variety of sources, some of which involve weak or nonexistent government oversight. But many on Chinese social media seem to trust a government-run monopoly to keep salt safe for consumption far more than they do the free market. "In recent years, table salt is practically the only product yet to be affected by food safety issues," one popular comment read. "If salt is privatized, it will be difficult to prevent fraudulent products." Another post read, "Compared to other food products, salt is both cheap and hygienic. Is there any way to get rid of the costs of monopoly while keeping its benefits?"

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr