China province to read portents in bid to avert panic

Wed Apr 6, 2011 6:09am EDT
 
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BEIJING (Reuters) - Worried that a freaky swarm of toads and snakes portends disaster? Calming help is at hand in one wealthy eastern Chinese province.

Worried about public panic triggered by rumors of catastrophe or omens of apocalypse, the government of Jiangsu province is encouraging people to report "anomalies of nature" so they can get rational explanations, state news agency Xinhua said on Wednesday.

"The idea is not from seismologists, but sociologists," the report quoted an unnamed government official as saying. "After some massive earthquakes recently, like the one in Japan, people are deeply worried about disasters."

Despite decades of denunciations of superstition by the ruling Communist Party, traditional beliefs are strong in China, especially in the vast and underdeveloped countryside.

In 2004, the mysterious deaths of thousands of tiny birds said to have fallen from the sky over President Hu Jintao's birthplace were seen by some Chinese as a worrying portent for his rule.

But sometimes there really is no need for concern, Xinhua said, pointing to an incident in 2009 in Anhui province when police freed frogs and snakes seized from smugglers.

"Not knowing the fact, many local residents, seeing hordes of frogs and snakes, thought that it could be an omen for an earthquake and were too afraid to sleep in the apartments," Xinhua said.

"The fear only dissipated when local seismological authorities stepped in and gave a good explanation after having made an investigation over the case."

Crises, at home or abroad, often prompt strange panic in China, something that unnerves the stability-obsessed government.

Last month Chinese swamped supermarkets to snap up salt, believing rumors spread online, via text message and word of mouth that iodine could stop radiation sickness from Japan's damaged nuclear plants.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)