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China, wary of social unrest, scrambles to contain food prices

It wants to avoid mistakes of 1988 as inflation hits 10-year high of 6.9%

(HONG KONG) Rocketing food prices in China have sown deep concern among the communist leadership, ever wary of social unrest, as they fumble to control inflation without repeating past mistakes, analysts say.

Overall inflation in China is running at a 10-year high – around 6.9 per cent in November year-on-year, official statistics show.

Inflation is now being driven almost exclusively by increases in the price of food, in particular the staple meat, pork, which has spiked 60 per cent year-on-year.

Prices have faced even greater upward pressure in recent weeks, as severe weather has crippled the transport system at the time demand is greatest over the Chinese New Year.

A report by Credit Suisse said 10 per cent of China’s farmland has been affected by the extreme cold, and one per cent could see a complete loss of crops and vegetables.

Price increases have been seen in food items ranging from cooking oil to apple juice, as China’s growth and global demand creates what economists have dubbed ‘agflation’ referring specifically to rises in prices of agricultural commodities.

Analysts say authorities in Beijing are becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of food prices getting out of hand, but add that the problem is not yet approaching the levels that led to widespread popular dissatisfaction almost a decade ago.

‘They (the central government) are increasingly nervous about it,’ said Andy Rothman, Shanghai-based China macro-strategist for CLSA. ‘But it is a long, long way from the inflation problems before 1989.’

In January, the National Development and Reform Commission announced tightened supervision of prices for grain, edible oils, meat, poultry, eggs, feed and other items in both wholesale and retail markets. This followed the announcement in late December that from Jan 1 the government would slap taxes ranging from 5 to 25 per cent on exports of a range of products including wheat, corn, rice and soybeans to try and ensure stable food supplies at home.

The actions appeared to be stoked by memories of the widespread protests that resulted from the government’s clumsy handling of food price controls that led to inflation of around 50 per cent in the summer of 1988. Public anger prompted the demonstrations that the following summer morphed into anti-government protests and the death at the hands of the army of hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians.

Vincent Chan, head of China research for Credit Suisse, cited another change in recent months, saying people were now expecting price rises.

‘If you look at the statistics, then China’s inflation problem is simply a food inflation problem,’ he said. ‘In the past, we have not really had a problem of inflation expectation (but) this year we have already seen that. And that normally means that prices will rise.’

CLSA’s Mr Rothman said pork price inflation is only a short-term problem, and predicted prices will start to fall back later this year.

‘This is a supply problem. In 2006, pork prices had a 10-year low. There was not any incentive for farmers to raise more pigs. This was made worse by blue-ear disease which stopped supply when demand was rising,’ he said.

The other major factor in Chinese inflation, cooking oil, was more complicated, he said, as 60 per cent of it is imported.

‘The major contributor to the rise is US ethanol policy and there is little the Chinese can do about that,’ he said.

Subsidies in the US have seen a major switch in land use to grow crops for fuel, rather than food, prompting worldwide increases in some staple foods.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said in October that China was expected to slash its exports of cereals from 7.7 million tonnes in 2006-7 to 6.2 million tonnes in 2007-8. At the same time it would probably increase imports to 10.1 million tonnes from 9.3 million tonnes.

China imported 32.2 million tonnes of oilcrops, including corn and soybeans, in 2006-7, which the FAO said was expected to rise to 37.3 million tonnes in 2007-8, with exports expected to fall to 1.3 million tonnes from 1.5 million tonnes.

Mr Rothman said there had been anecdotal evidence of subsidies to poor rural areas, which if accurate could indicate the government’s willingness to take action to keep a lid on food prices and prevent any hint of social unease.

 

Source: AFP (Business Times 18 Feb 08)

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