BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese state media have sought to quiet online speculation that a conflict with Taiwan may be imminent, in a sign of how heated rhetoric between Washington and Beijing was feeding public concern about the risk of war.
Chinese social media networks have seen a flurry of chatter about a possible Taiwan crisis in recent days, seemingly fuelled by Beijing's call for citizens to stockpile food and an unrelated message claiming to show the nation was preparing to mobilise military reserves.
The surge came after a report by China's state broadcaster saying that Taiwanese were hoarding their own survival supplies.
On Tuesday (Nov 2), the Economic Daily published a commentary urging the public "not to over read" a Ministry of Commerce statement encouraging families to stock up on some daily necessities due to supply-chain concerns. Later on Tuesday, a social media account affiliated with the official People's Liberation Army Daily newspaper denounced the mobilisation rumours as a "vile" and "malicious fabrication."
"It will not only cause negative impact to the state, the military and society, it could also lead to severe consequences," said the account, Junzhengping.
One screenshot of a text message widely circulated on social media urged reserves to "get ready to be recalled at anytime" because "the Taiwan issue was very grim".
On Wednesday morning, the Junzhengping denial was among the top-trending topics on the Weibo social media network. Still, the war talk continued to simmer, with a 63-year-old video of PLA generals singing that they "will definitely plant the flag of victory on Taiwan" getting more than 130 million views.
The controversy shows the challenge President Xi Jinping's government faces in trying to manage Chinese public sentiment over Taiwan, even with its vast censorship powers. Over months of sabre-rattling over Taiwan, authorities have sometimes needed to step in to tone down the rhetoric and at other times faced backlash for perceived weakness.
The PLA sent more than 200 military planes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone last month, amid national day celebrations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden affirmed the US's commitment to the island's defence and Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen confirmed assistance from US military advisers, something long viewed a potential justification for war by Beijing.
The official China Daily newspaper warned in an editorial Sunday that Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party were "leading Taiwan to an abyss".
The paper cited a senior Chinese official's pledge to spend the island's post-unification revenue on improving the well-being of its residents as a remark that shows "confidence that the Taiwan question will be settled in the foreseeable future".
Chinese reports that Taiwanese people were hoarding supplies were largely dismissed in Taipei, where residents have lived with the threat of Chinese invasion for more than 70 years.
Still, a poll conducted last month by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that 28.1 per cent of respondents agreed that China would attack "sooner or later," compared with 23.7 per cent who disagreed.
Mr Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party's Global Times newspaper, offered a strategic rationale for the government's rhetoric in a commentary published on Monday.
He argued that "peaceful reunification" would likely result from applying enough pressure to make the DPP leadership believe it had no choice but to surrender.
"Personally, I believe there is still a chance for peaceful reunification, but it must be based on the condition that the DPP authority feels cornered and will perish if they do not accept reunification," Mr Hu said.