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A cut-price Christmas, a Premier on a sales drive

world Updated: Dec 25, 2008 23:16 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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The Premier held his own umbrella and waved to construction crew at a rain-soaked dam site in China’s boomtown Chongqing this week. Wen Jiabao got photographed wearing a yellow helmet, sitting in the driver’s seat at an automobile factory, visiting low-income families and chatting with shipbuilding workers in blue overalls.

Officially atheist China is on sale this Christmas season, with trees in every shop and apartment complex. Carols are playing in elevators and sales staff is wearing Santa hats. But there’s little to cheer.

On Christmas Eve, China’s legislature was studying a report on the domestic impact of the financial crisis. The leadership is grappling to maintain stability as it enters a year when growth could hit a 19-year low and restless unemployed students will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations.

According to official figures, 1.5 million graduates may remain unemployed by year-end. Next year, at least one-fourth of 6.1 million graduates will struggle for jobs. Four million migrant factory workers are seeking work back in villages and small towns.

This week, Wen warned companies not to lay off graduates. He mingled with university students in Beijing and Chongqing, telling them that confidence is more important than gold and currency.

“Your difficulties are my difficulties, and if you are worried, I am more worried than you,” Wen was quoted saying at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He said the government is planning a graduate employment package.

On Sunday, China’s Cabinet announced another Christmas gift. A new package allows anyone who has owned a home for two or more years to sell it without paying taxes. The previous tax-free limit was five years. Those selling within two years will pay tax only on the profit, not the sales price.

But no tour by the affable Premier may make the Chinese buy more instead of save. Consumer optimism in China has plunged from 90 per cent 18 months ago to 46 per cent, found a latest Ipsos Global Public Affairs online survey reported by Reuters. In India, the poll reported a fall from 88 per cent to 65 per cent.

In Beijing, fine-dining restaurants have cut Christmas menu prices. Even the State-run Xinhua agency said that ‘Santa tightened his belt’. Last weekend, it listed cheap gift options to cope with the economic slowdown — if you don’t mind shoes branded Nikke instead of Nike.