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Beyond Climate Change Concerns: Fukushima Fear and Eco-Anxiety in China

“Is our world turning into an apocalyptic survival game?” Fears over Fukushima waste water and other global threats are fueling public anxiety in China.




While there isn’t a heated ongoing debate about global warming and climate change in China, it doesn’t imply that people are apathetic about the environment and well-being of future generations. Public expressions of ‘eco-anxiety’ and fears for the future are channeled towards different topics in China, where some believe that recent global challenges have transformed their lives into an ‘apocalyptic survival game.’

Over the past ten days, Japan’s decision to release treated nuclear water has ignited waves of anger and concern on Chinese social media platforms. Many netizens express worries about how the Fukushima wastewater might impact the marine ecosystem, while others are deeply concerned about the long-term repercussions of this pollution on their food safety and overall well-being in the coming decades.

The huge public concern over the Fukushima water seemingly poses a stark contrast with that over climate change. As Miranda Barnes recently noted in our Weibo Watch newsletter, the urgent implications of climate change and global warming caused by human activities are a huge topic of debate in Western countries, especially in relation to extreme weather. In China however, the phenomenon of “eco-anxiety” doesn’t resonate among the public in the same manner as it does in Western discourse, despite notable events like China recording historically high temperatures in July, the impact of Typhoon Doksuri, last summer’s wildfires and this summer’s devastating floods.

In a recent Reuters article about the discussions surrounding climate change in China, a Greenpeace senior adviser called it a “big missed opportunity” that Chinese state media and official channels did not connect the recent extreme weather in the country to its own carbon emissions and climate change at large.

China’s limited engagement with the climate change discourse is also noticeable in the realm of social media. Researchers Chuxuan Liu and Jeremy Lee Wallace published a study about “China’s missing climate change debate” (2023), concluding that social media site Weibo does not have very active discussions about the topic of climate change at all. They found that only 0.12% of the unique trending topics on Weibo from June 2017 to February 2021 were related to this theme.

Some news articles suggest that the lack of climate crisis discussions in China relates to the challenges faced by grass-roots environmental movements in contemporary China, alongside censorship.

But climate anxiety is not the only form of eco-anxiety, and it would be a misconception to assume that absence of panic over climate issues means that Chinese people are not concerned about the environment or the well-being of future generations at all. As explained in Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress, various global threats, including climate change, ecological challenges, and pandemics, are interconnected in multiple ways. Pandemics can influence ecological problems, for example, and ecological dynamics and climate factors can also cause outbreaks and shape pandemics (Pihkala 2023, 1).

Climate change, global warming, and environmental activism may not hold as prominent a place in daily social life and online media in China as in the West, but some topics related to global ecological challenges — often communicated by state media and amplified by public responses — actually garner more engagement than in Western countries.

We delve into a few examples in this article. Given the scope of our discussion, we won’t go into the scientific details behind these phenomena; instead, we’ll center our attention on the public anxiety surrounding them.

Public Panic over Fukushima

Japan’s decision to start discharging treated nuclear water into the Pacific has already become one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media this year. Through Weibo posts, short videos, articles, and memes, people vociferously criticized Japan for what they saw as an irresponsible act of releasing “contaminated water” (污染水) – a concept popularized by official channels highlighting the toxicity of the disposed water, as opposed to the more neutral “treated water” (废水) term.

In the first days surrounding the Fukushima waste water release, a trending topic on Chinese social media highlighted how the move would harm to the oceanic ecosystem, with many people posting photos of dolphins, sealions, whales, fish, and other wildlife that could be affected by water pollution alongside the hashtag “History Won’t Forget.”

This post claimed that “the sea otters will also remember” what Japan has done.

In addition to a surge in anti-Japanese sentiments and concerns about the livelihoods of the Chinese fishing industry, another significant aspect of the viral online responses to the Fukushima wastewater issue has been the discussions regarding strategies for how to survive the perceived crisis.

While in the English-language media sphere, critics dismissed the panic as unwarranted, stressing that the disposal is well within safety limits or that environmental impact is negligible, the release of the treated water caused an outbreak of apocalyptic fears and many people immediately took action to protect themselves and their loved ones in various ways.

These fears are widespread, encompassing notions such as the contaminated water having the potential to induce mutations in marine life and elevate the risk of cancer when consumed by humans.

On the day preceding the wastewater release, Chinese state media outlet China Daily launched a hashtag about how “the nuclear-treated water will reach our seashore in 240 days” (#核废水排放后240天就会到达我国沿岸海域#). This statement was based on a Tsinghua University simulation study into how the tritium will spread.

A screenshot from the video posted by the Weibo account of China Daily about the simulation study, showing that the water will reach China’s seashore after 240 days.

The idea that the contaminated water discharged into the Pacific could reach China within less than eight months quickly gained traction on social media platforms, with many netizens reposting and highlighting the timeline, even planning their “last activities” within these days, such as consuming China-produced seafood or visiting the beach.

Rumors suggesting that the released water would reach the United States long after affecting China and nearby countries also gained widespread online popularity. Some of these analyses led to suspicions that the release of treated water must be a joint conspiracy by Japan and the United States, with the specific aim of targeting the lives of Chinese people.

Guidelines on how everyday practices could mitigate radioactive harm widely circulated. These included recommendations such as taking showers after it rains, identifying makeup products free from radioactive elements, or transitioning to a more vegetarian-based diet. Many of these tips, however, have no scientific basis. One restaurant in Shanghai even started offering anti-radioactive menus.

Meanwhile people began hoarding supplies in preparation for long-term survival. In the coastal city of Weihai, the closest Chinese city to South Korea, four tons of salt were sold in just one hour as citizens queued to stockpile salt on August 24. The salt frenzy stems from collective concerns about the impact of Fukushima water on food safety and that table salt – in the near future and in the decades to come – might also become compromised. There’s also a believe that salt might help in case of radiation pollution (iodized salt, however, is actually no antidote for radiation).

Although muck of the panic buying may have evoked memories of the past Covid years and preparations for the potential next lockdown, people actually also started hoarding salt back in 2011 shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March of that year.

Russia’s Anthrax Outbreak

Similar to the Fukushima wastewater responses, the same question of “how long does it take to arrive in China” also frequently pops up in the discussions surrounding the spread of anthrax in Russia. Anthrax is a serious infectious disease that occurs naturally in soil and can cause severe diseases to both humans and animals.

While Western media mostly focused on the Prigozhin jet crash incident, news of a mysterious anthrax outbreak in Russia (#俄罗斯一地暴发细菌性炭疽病#) has garnered attention on Chinese social media, causing significant concern. A current hypothesis directly connects climate change and the outbreak by suggesting that the thawing of frozen soil might have exposed people to decades-old infected reindeer carcasses.

A screenshot of the search result on Wechat channels on the topic of Russia’s anthrax, which shows that one related videos received 851,000 likes. Image shared by a netizen on Weibo.

In the comments under reports about the anthrax outbreak, many people are curious about how close the outbreak is to China’s borders. Others are researching anthrax transmission and fatality rates, wondering if it could turn into another global pandemic.

While most people are concerned about the outbreak’s potential impact, some are politicizing it without clear evidence, accusing the US of engaging in new “biological warfare” in Russia.

An image of the game “Resident Evil: Death Island” from a game review article.

The unease about Russia’s anthrax outbreak possibly being linked to “biological warfare” aligns with the public’s anxiety about mutations caused by Japan’s release of radioactive water. These worries amplify existing concerns about environmental changes, drawing parallels with the dystopian world of the Japanese survival horror game “Resident Evil,” where players face environments filled with zombies and other terrifying creatures. In discussions about the anthrax situation, a recurring question emerges: “Why does our reality increasingly resemble an apocalyptic survival game?”

Covid-19 Subvariants and Monkeypox

Apocalyptic game survival always becomes challenging when there are more than two crises unfolding at the same time. Beyond the concerns about contaminated water and anthrax outbreaks, another issue has captured the attention of the Chinese public recently – the spread of the latest Covid-19 subvariants, EG.5 and BA.2.86.

EG.5 is now the most prevalent in the US and has been detected in at least 52 countries. BA.2.86 is much less widespread, but scientists are alarmed by how many mutations it carries.

While more Chinese social media users are sharing their own experiences of getting Covid a third time, people begin to worry about the possible impact of a massive Covid-19 third wave, referred to as sān yáng (三阳). At the same time, some accounts are giving daily updates on new global cases of BA.2.86, and news reports related to new Covid sub-variants ignite strong reactions from netizens.

“Do not come over” meme used during the monkeypox outbreak.

We have seen similar responses related to news about monkeypox (mpox), with one domestic case of monkeypox occurring in July of this year becoming a top trending topic. Soon after, China saw the world’s fastest increase in cases of mpox, leading to significant concerns expressed by many, with people seeking information on preventive measures to avoid contracting the virus and expressing their hopes that the virus will remain far away from them.

Apocalyptic Games

“The main task is to stay alive”, concluded numerous netizens on Weibo after listing recent hashtags related to nuclear water, anthrax, and the next Covid-19 subvariant in their posts.

The combination of recent crises involving the environment and public health has made the prospect of impending catastrophe feel distressingly real to many. Half-jokingly, young people on Weibo express their concerns about having shorter lifespans. One netizen even humorously remarks, “Paying into your pension plan under these circumstances is almost like a form of romantic heroism,” suggesting that maintaining the belief that one will live long enough to enjoy their pension is overly optimistic and somewhat naive, especially in the face of present-day global challenges.

Beyond concerns about pension plans, a reluctance to have children has also emerged as a common sentiment, especially after Japan’s release of nuclear treated water. A viral screenshot of a street interview in Hong Kong captures the essence of this sentiment. In the interview, a young person nonchalantly responds that he isn’t worried about contamination of Japanese seafood because he doesn’t plan to have children. While not everyone shares this carefree attitude, many agree that having children in the current climate would be risky and senseless given the state of the world today.

A Weibo user sharing the screenshot of the interview on Weibo and comment that “[This is from] a street interview in Hong Kong. Some citizens said they did not worry about the contamination of Japanese seafood because they did not plan to have children.” The screenshot has now been censored.

Some netizens humorously assume the roles of players in an apocalyptic survival game, assigning different tasks to themselves.

A Weibo user sharing their “tasks” in the survival game.

Under the hashtag ‘What China Can Do When Japan Releases Contaminated Water in the Ocean’ (#日本核污水排海中国怎么办#), one netizen outlines tasks for ‘players’ based on priorities: “Primary task: stay alive; Side-quest: prevent a third-time Covid-19 infection; Special Task: prevent Russia’s anthrax; Hidden task: avoid being deceived by North Myanmar; Important task: avoid consuming seafood from the Pacific Ocean; Final task: eliminate zombies.” Similar tasks have been listed in other posts, reflecting the sentiment that a mass extinction event is looming, making survival increasingly challenging.

Eco-Anxiety and a Bleak Future

While the term ‘eco-anxiety’ is familiar in Western societies and used by environmental activists, it has yet to become popular among the general public in mainland China, and there is no widely recognized Chinese translation for it. However, this doesn’t mean that only vocal activists are concerned about ecological disasters, or that ordinary people in China are indifferent to global challenges because their concerns are not framed in terms of climate change or expressed through activism.

As numerous studies have shown, ecological anxiety is not exclusive to the West. It’s just that the Western language and framework may have captured this mentality first, making it easy to overlook individuals in other regions who share the same sentiments but express them differently.

Certainly, as elsewhere, mainstream national media in China also contribute significantly to events and incidents that fuel “eco-anxiety” among the public. Moreover, changing political narratives play a pivotal role in shaping these dynamics.

In contrast to the West, Chinese media doesn’t necessarily connect global warming to the nation’s carbon emissions. A recent article published by The Economist discussed official and public discussions being “inward-looking” and avoiding direct engagement with climate change debates.

However, as recently pointed out by Miranda Barnes in our newsletter, additional factors contribute to the distinct responses of Chinese netizens, particularly regarding personal consumption and how individual behavior is connected to climate change. With many people, especially elderly, feeling they bear no responsibility for major pollution or gas emissions, “extreme weather” (“极端天气”) topics on on Chinese social media mostly center around personal safety, self-rescue strategies, and considerations for insurance rather than the collective responsibility of humanity for causing climate change.

Complicating matters further, the presence of low social trust and public skepticism towards official media exacerbates eco-anxiety and other concerns about well-being and the future. People often believe that prioritizing individual self-help and self-protection is the safer option, leading to behaviors like panic buying, even when official sources advise against hoarding.

It is also noteworthy that many of the topics that people are concerned about when it comes to eco-anxiety and public health scares are linked, either directly or indirectly, to foreign countries. While several socio-historical factors contribute to these fears, there are critics who argue that Chinese leaders might exploit public sentiment against Japan or the US to deflect attention from their own internal economic, ecological, and political challenges. On the other hand, some Chinese commentators interpret the Western world’s apparent indifference to these issues as a prioritization of political strategies and capitalist profits over ecological concerns.

A cartoon posted on Weibo showing the US creating a samurai sword for Japan to fight with, mocking the US’s supportive attitude in Japan’s release of treated water.

Eco-anxiety is a collective response to various interconnected issues, including pandemics, disease spread, food security, environmental disasters, and the well-being of future generations. It’s like a complex puzzle where many pieces are intertwined, often involving intricate geopolitical and domestic political dimensions.

After the recent Fukushima fears, one person wrote on Weibo: “A while ago when listening to the BBC, I first heard the English term ‘eco-anxiety’ and I originally did not understand at all, why would people suffer from ‘eco-anxiety’? I hadn’t seen anyone around me with such emotions. But I get it now. I’m already deeply anxious myself.”

By Zilan Qian and Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes


Liu, Chuxuan and Jeremy Wallace. 2023. “What’s Not Trending on Weibo: China’s Missing Climate Change Discourse.” Environmental Research Communications 5 (1).

Pihkala, Panu. 2023. “Introduction” In: Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress. Edited by: Douglas A. Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Oxford University Press.


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China Society

“Elderlies” in Their Thirties: The Growing Interest of Chinese Youth in Nursing Homes

Some Chinese nursing homes are evolving into sought-after havens where China’s younger people can “lie flat” without worrying about meals and household chores, while enjoying a high-quality lifestyle.

Zilan Qian



Chinese nursing homes are changing their image in the social media age. While Chinese vloggers experiment with living in old people’s homes, and nursing homes are modernizing their facilities, some senior care centers are offering young people the chance to reside in their communities for free – as long as they spend some time with their elderly residents.

In China, nursing homes (养老院, yǎnglǎoyuàn) are usually not linked to lively living spaces. Many picture elderly residents trapped in dull daily routines, lacking companionship, without any visitors or children around, simply awaiting the inevitable alone.

However, these places, once synonymous with boredom, loneliness, and the end of life, are now piquing the interest of younger generations in China, breathing new life into them and transforming them into more vibrant living communities.

Recently, a nursing home in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, began to recruit young people to live there. The initiative is a part of the “Companion Aging Program” promoted by the local civil affair bureau.

Its objective is twofold. One the one hand, it provides new living environments for younger generations facing difficulties in securing housing. On the other hand, it alleviates the burden of social isolation on seniors who struggle to stay in touch with the communities around them.

The program is focused on attracting young people, especially those who have just entered the workforce. They can stay in one-bedroom apartments within nursing homes for free, with only a small monthly management fee of 300 yuan ($41). The only requirement is that they spend at least ten hours each month engaging in activities with elderly residents, like sharing meals, going for walks, or having conversations.

A young resident is accompanying an elderly at the nursing home. Image via The Paper.

The government initiators stress the program’s win-win situation. A staff member at the bureau explains, “The program can provide accompany to satisfy seniors’ emotional needs, while also helping ‘companions’ to save on rental costs.”

To ensure that the program is indeed mutually beneficial, the government has established specific criteria for potential senior companions. These requirements include not having current residents in the city, holding at least a junior college education level, and having desirable backgrounds in fields such as medicine, psychology, information technology, arts, or law.

The program has been well-received thus far. In a Weibo poll with the hashtag “Are you willing to live in nursing homes for free by accompanying old people?” (#你愿意陪伴老年人免费入住养老院吗#), initiated by Xinjin News (@新京报), 55% of the respondents wholeheartedly support the initiative, while approximately 30% remain undecided.

According to another recent Weibo post by Sina News, the nursing home has already received hundreds of resumes from applicants.

“The Old Man in His Thirties”: Young People Who Want to Live in Nursing Homes

In the meantime, living in nursing homes seems to have become increasingly popular among young people in China, even when it’s not always free of charge. Nursing homes have not only been portrayed in more favorable lights on social media by state media outlets, they have also taken proactive measures themselves to improve their image.

Thanks to these collective efforts, what were once seen as lonely and uninspiring places are now seemingly transforming into popular residences where China’s younger people can “lie flat” (read more), without worrying about meals and household chores, while enjoying a high-quality lifestyle.

On social app Xiaohongshu, one user named “The Old Man in His Thirties” (三旬老汉) has recently been documenting his experience of moving to a nursing home.

In his first video, somewhat jokingly, he talks about quitting his job due to overwhelming work demands and choosing to embrace a “lie-flat” lifestyle (“躺平”). He was drawn to the nursing home because it provides meals, takes care of residents, and handles daily chores.

Titled “Day xx of living in a nursing home at the age of thirty” (“三十岁入住养老院的第xx天”), his subsequent videos showcase the nursing home staff preparing delicious meals for him, getting him snacks, and even engaging in esports activities with him. These videos also feature his humorous interactions with his roommate, a senior resident in his seventies.

Another post-95 generation Xiaohongshu user (久久姨家政) recently also shared his experiences of living in an old people’s home. His videos revolve around talking to older residents, enjoying meals with them or joking around. There are also other accounts, all young Chinese vloggers, sharing their own journeys of moving into senior care facilities.

This 25-year-old vlogger shared his experiences of living in a nursing home.

Although these videos are apparently filmed based on written scripts, many netizens still see the attractiveness of nursing homes through these kinds of videos and posts. Many viewers have left comments under these videos expressing their desire to reside in senior living communities, asking for locations and inquiring about the costs.

Since the first video by “The Old Man in His Thirties” was posted in mid-June, the series has documented approximately 70 days of life in the nursing home. By now, the account has nearly 60,000 followers, and the videos accumulated thousands of likes.

In addition to improving their image through social media, some nursing homes in China have also enhanced their appeal by upgrading facilities. Gyms, swimming pools, snooker tables, free wifi and esports rooms – a variety of amenities have been introduced to transform nursing homes into modern spaces that also cater to the preferences of younger individuals.

Some private nursing homes also market themselves as “nursing homes even young people would want to live in,” emphasizing the exceptional quality and modern standards of services and facilities.

A Xiaohongshu blogger promoting a private nursing home equipped with gyms, swimming pools, and spa services under the title “what does it feel like to live in nursing homes in the thirties?”

This online promotion has had the surprising by-effect that younger and middle-aged people are also changing their attitudes about moving into nursing homes when they are old and retired.

Hiaohongshu user experiencing life in a nursing home in Suzhou: “I’m only 20 years old and living in an old people’s home already!”

While some nursing homes across the country are offering free short stays for young Chinese, other individuals have gone as far as paying for a short stay to personally experience various nursing homes. One Xiaohongshu user, after spending a night at a local upscale nursing home and sharing her experience with a friend, commented, “After the immersive experience, I’m eager to apply for long-term residency right away.”

A Path to Change Eldercare in Aging China

The growing interest of young people in nursing homes is not merely a coincidental trend arising from local government initiatives or viral social media trends.

Elderly care services have been a significant focal point of China’s national strategies for several years, driven by the projected fourfold increase in the elderly population, from 36 million to 150 million, in the next three decades.

In early May of this year, the government issued guidelines aimed at establishing a comprehensive elderly care system by 2025. These guidelines emphasize the provision of material support to elderly individuals living alone, which includes the improvement of services and facilities within nursing homes.

This increased focus on nursing homes may indicate a shift in China’s eldercare strategies, particularly in light of the significant decline in birth rates. From 2011 to 2020, China prioritized a home-based eldercare system, encouraging younger generations to live in close proximity to their elderly relatives through restructured healthcare facilities and the promotion of filial piety.

Between 2015 and 2020, the central government allocated 5 billion yuan (approximately USD 743 million) to support new pilot programs for home-based elderly care services (Krings et al 2022).

However, with record-low marriage and birth rates, it is likely that a significant number of young people today will later lack the younger family members needed to provide home-based care as they age. Consequently, nursing homes are bound to play a more crucial role in China’s future eldercare industry.

Xiaohongshu post promoting a Suzhou high-end nursing home.

In Chinese society, older adults residing in nursing homes are often regarded as examples of personal failures for not having loving families with caring children (Luo & Zhan 2911). Moreover, concerns about potential mistreatment of vulnerable elderly residents by staff members at nursing homes persist.

The increasing interest and recent active involvement of young people in nursing homes offer a way to challenge old stereotypes and bring new ideas to the changing eldercare landscape in China. Perhaps most importantly, it helps combat the loneliness that many seniors face while bridging the gap between the country’s younger and older generations.

By Zilan Qian

References (other sources hyperlinked in text):

Krings, Marion F., Jeroen D. van Wijngaarden, Shasha Yuan, and Robbert Huijsman. 2022. “China’s Elder Care Policies 1994–2020: A Narrative Document Analysis.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 10: 6141.

Luo, Baozhen, and Heying Zhan. 2011. “Filial Piety and Functional Support: Understanding Intergenerational Solidarity among Families with Migrated Children in Rural China.” Ageing International 37, no. 1: 69–92.


This article has been edited for clarity by Manya Koetse


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China Local News

Changsha Restaurant Employee Pays the Price after Protecting Abused Child

A Changsha restaurant employee who intervened when a mother beat her child ended up paying the price for it.

Manya Koetse



The story of a restaurant employee who had to pay the price for sharing a video of a mother beating her child has triggered anger on Chinese social media.

The incident happened on September 14, when Mr. Jiang (江), an employee at the ‘Peng Shu’ Western-style restaurant in Changsha, stopped a mother from beating her young daughter at the shopping mall where the restaurant is located.

As reported by the Guizhou media channel People’s Focus (@百姓关注), a mother and daughter at the restaurant drew the staff’s attention when the mother began physically assaulting her daughter.

The mother, clearly overwhelmed by her emotions, resorted to kicking, hitting, yelling, and even attempting to strike her child with a chair, allegedly in response to the child accidentally spilling ice cream on her clothing.

During this distressing incident, which was captured on video, Mr. Jiang and another colleague intervened to protect the child and immediately alerted the police to the situation.

But the one who was punished in the end was not the mother.

The video of this incident was shared online, leading the woman to repeatedly visit the restaurant in frustration over her unblurred face in the video. The police had to mediate in this dispute.

To the dismay of many netizens, the employee ended up being forced to pay the woman 10,000 yuan ($1369) in compensation for “moral damages.” He has since resigned from his job and has left Changsha. A related hashtag was viewed over 110 million times on Weibo (#餐厅员工发顾客打娃视频后赔1万离职#) and also became a hot topic on Douyin.

The majority of commenters expressed their anger at the unjust outcome where a restaurant employee, who had attempted to protect the child, faced repercussions while the mother appeared to avoid any legal consequences for her actions.

“Where is the All-China Women’s Federation when you need them?” some wondered, while others wanted to know why the incident was not followed up with an immediate investigation into the child abuse. Others suggested that if it were a man who had beaten his child, authorities would have been quicker to intervene.

The issue of corporal punishment for children often comes up in Chinese social media discussions. While many people find it unacceptable to beat children, using violence to discipline children is also commonplace in many families.

When China’s first national law against domestic violence came into effect on 1 March 2016, article 5 and 12 specifically addressed the special legal protection of children and made family violence against children against the law.

By Manya Koetse

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