How Wen Jiabao Likes His Noodles
Fearing political unrest due to runaway inflation, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has made scapegoats out of noodle makers.
"China has 1.3 billion people. When you multiply a small problem 1.3 billion times, it becomes a huge problem." Wen Jiabao, China's Prime Minister, made that statement two years ago. Today he has his hands full dealing with exactly such a problem.
In past months, the price of instant noodles has gone up by as much as 40%. The cheapest pack costs one yuan (13 US cents), so the price increases are in the range of, say, 40 jiao, or 5 US cents. Even in China, this is hardly a sum that elicits much excitement. But the Chinese eat a lot of instant noodles. Last year some 30 billion packs or cups were consumed in China. This averages 23 helpings per man, woman and child.
Like onions in India, instant noodles are now inextricably tied to politics in China. It is said that a rise in the price of onions often leads to the ousting of the incumbent Indian Prime Minister, as Indians express their unhappiness by voting against the party in power.
In China, the people are not given much of an official mechanism to show their feelings. As a result, they often resort to demonstrations and riots. There are now an average of eight to 10 major uprisings every day in China, and the number is increasing with the widening gap between the minority benefiting from China's economic growth and the majority who feel left behind. It is not surprising Premier Wen would take a personal interest in ensuring that the rising instant noodle price does not spark a major uprising. But instead of tackling the root of the matter – the instant noodle price rise is pushed by the rising cost of raw materials – Wen has decided to pin the blame for the rising price on the noodle makers. The National Development and Reform Commission, which reports directly to the State Council, announced that it had evidence to show that the major noodle makers have colluded in pushing up the price. The commission found the major noodle companies "met three times since December to illegally set prices", and could fine them five times their so-called illegal gains.
This is a standard Communist Party ploy – when a problem gets too big, find a scapegoat to focus the public's anger on. Mao Zedong used it to great effect after the failure of his Great Leap Forward by launching the Cultural Revolution and blaming the ills of the country on the bourgeoisie. More than 20 million died so the Great Helmsman would avoid blame.
It is alarming that Wen is resorting to scapegoats. The stark truth is that instant noodle prices are unlikely to come down until he and his team manage to tame China's runaway inflation. Until then, the people have to live with higher noodle prices.