The people who make most of the world's cheapest exports in the fastest-growing economy are finding that they cannot afford cabbage. Middle-class
Chinese women are packing trains from Shenzhen and Guangzhou to Hong Kong, once their destination for luxury perfumes, to buy soy sauce and salt.
On Wednesday, an official said that Beijing plans to hike the consumer price index limit from 3% to 4% next year. In India, inflation is twice as high. But Beijing sees a sharp rise in food price as a threat to social stability as workers get testy about their falling purchasing power. Premier Wen Jiabao has already made a publicised supermarket stopover, assuring that the two-year high in inflation will be contained.
"You're sitting on a volcano," Patrick Chovanec, of the Tsinghua University, told Bloomberg today. China's inflation, driven by a 10% rise in food prices due to bad harvests, speculation and even rising transport costs, is turning high-rise residents into gardeners.
"Chinese people brainstorming to eat cheaper food," said a Xinhua headline this month as inflation hit 4.4%. It described the residents of southern Hainan, China's Hawaii, planting cabbages despite fines for farming on public land. In Fujian, Henan and Shaanxi provinces, street corners are sprouting vegetable patches. "The Chinese bought cabbage by the kilo every winter. Now we check the cost of one cabbage," said a Beijing schoolteacher. "The cost of food is all we talk about."
Even a McDonald's meal became costlier this month. Local governments are releasing temporary food subsidies and reserves of cooking oil and soybeans. From December 1, highway tolls will be scrapped to transport agricultural produce. The Cabinet has issued a seven-page list of measures to stabilise food and power supplies.
Chinese portals have calculated that compared to last year, 100 yuan (R700) now buys 30 less apples, four and half less bags of instant noodles, 6kg less garlic, 90 less eggs and so on. A two-year-old website called stingy group is gaining followers. It advises the Chinese to shower once a week to save water for laundry and eat in office canteens not restaurants.