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Pork Rationing Casts Shadow on Effectiveness of Reforms in China : Country Returns to Subsidies When Supply Is Short

December 28, 1987|DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Guo Heiran was delighted to see a rationing announcement go up not long ago at the pork counter in the Chaoyangmennei market.

"This illustrates the advantages of socialism," said Guo, 64, a retired school administrator who had come to the market in a blue Mao suit and cap.

"Here it's not as it is in some countries, where, when there's a shortage of meat, people with money can buy it and poor people can't," he said. "People are equal. Those who earn more money have meat to eat. Those who earn less money also have meat to eat."

A couple of young men, less convinced of the advantages of socialism, overheard Guo's remarks.

"Old revolutionary," one muttered.

"Silly old jerk," said the other.

The reappearance on Dec. 1 of pork rationing in Beijing--in seeming conflict with general trends toward improved food supplies and greater reliance on market forces--has been received with mixed feelings by consumers.

Some are happy. Others find it an inconvenience and worry about its implications for the fate of China's economic reforms.

But the resumption of pork rationing, last seen in Beijing for a few months in early 1985, is basically aimed at limiting public dissatisfaction over a temporary pork shortage while efforts are made to solve the problems that led to the shortfall in hog production.

It also illustrates the complexity of the problems faced by China's reformist leaders as they seek to guide their nation onto a more market-oriented economic path. And it can even be seen as an indication that market cycles have arrived in China.

Rationing of pork, the principal meat in the Chinese diet, does not mean that consumers are limited to the monthly ration of 2.2 pounds per person available at subsidized prices in government stores.

Quantities Not Subsidized

It means that the government wants to ensure that everyone can get at least this much meat at a relatively low price, while purchases of larger quantities will not be subsidized. People who want more pork must pay its true cost.

Pork is readily available at peasant-run free markets in Beijing and other cities. At these, people pay a higher price in return for convenience and a choice of leaner cuts. Some state-run stores also sell meat beyond the ration, at a higher price.

Pork typically costs about 50% more in the free markets. At the government-run Chaoyangmennei market, fatty pork costs the equivalent of about 45 cents a pound, and lean pork, when available, about 60 cents. At a street market nearby, lean pork costs 85 cents a pound.

Per-capita consumption of pork in China has risen to 2.6 pounds a month in 1986 from 1.4 pounds a month in 1978, according to government statistics. But after years of growth, hog production declined this year by about 2.6%.

Two other major Chinese cities, Tianjin and Shanghai, also instituted pork rationing in recent weeks. Many other cities started such programs earlier in the year.

On Dec. 1, Beijing also instituted sugar rationing--2.2 pounds a month for families of three or smaller. Larger families get 3.3 pounds a month. Rationing of eggs--typical in Beijing in winter--began a bit earlier.

Grain Costs Cited

Because of pork's central role in the Chinese diet and the symbolic importance of the capital city, it is Beijing's pork rationing that has drawn the greatest attention. The press has tried to explain the situation to consumers in an effort to limit discontent.

"There is an essential difference between the rationing of today and that in the past," the official People's Daily said in a commentary. "In the past, rationing was a form of very limited allocation of scarce goods. Now, the government spends a lot to subsidize pork. The more pork people eat, the more subsidy they receive. If there is no limit on this, the government will hardly be able to shoulder the burden in the future."

One of the basic causes of the problem, the newspaper said, is that the purchase price of pigs has been unreasonably low in relation to the cost of feed grain, and this "inevitably curbs the peasants' enthusiasm to raise pigs."

"The pork price should be raised," it continued. "But the hundreds of millions of people of our country have been accustomed to the living style of low income and low expenses for so long that psychologically they can't bear a sudden price change. Yet, to use subsidies to solve this problem is beyond the government's resources."

A Western diplomat commented that "the pressure is really high to not have price increases."

"By having rationing," the diplomat said, "they're saying to consumers, 'You can still get your cheap pork. But if you want to have more pork, or different (higher quality) pork, you need to pay more.' Now the consumers can't scream that prices are too high because the government can say, 'You've got the coupons, you've got the rationing, you can get it.' "

The pork shortfall results largely from a boom-and-bust pattern that looks very much like a market cycle, although Chinese officials do not like to call it that.

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