On the high-speed train from Beijing northeast to Harbin, passengers around me munch sweet popcorn and read books titled “Currency Wars,” “The Collapse of the Eurosystem,” and “The Upside of Irrationality.” Despite the raft of anti-inflationary measures introduced by the Chinese government in November, the lead article in the morning New Capital News announces that the price of gasoline is at a record high of $4.91 a gallon. Another article says that a popular Chinese online forum voted “zhang” — rapid price increase — 2010’s “character of the year.” It outpolled the runner-up, “resentment,” nearly six to one.
As the train glides silently past snow-covered cornfields, I ask my seatmates, people of varied ages and professions, about zhang. They swap stories of soaring apartment prices, not to mention zhang of cooking oil, zhang of toilet paper, zhang of airplane tickets, zhang of school fees. Voices rise as the passengers blame “speculators and hoarders” and declare that zhang makes them “angry to death” — it’s always personal in China — and suddenly everything is in the grips of zhang, including my formerly tranquil train ride.
So it’s not surprising that the annual “Blue Book of China’s Society,” compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reported that prices topped the list of the public’s concerns. China’s consumer price index, a gauge of inflation, rose 5.1 percent in November. That was driven by food prices, which, on average, rose 11.7 percent, with vegetable prices doubling in some places.
The nation’s best-selling brand of instant noodles increased its price 10 percent (to 33 cents, from 30 cents) to cover, it said, a rise in ingredient prices — leading the French grocer Carrefour to pull the product from its 169 stores in China. Say it with Parisian élan: zhang! And real estate prices continue to surge: a 2,000-square-foot apartment in the southern coastal city of Shenzhen can cost the equivalent of a four-bedroom in prime New York.
Even the dead are affected by zhang. At the privately run Eternal Garden Cemetery in Shenzhen, I recently watched a saleswoman explain to a customer that 50,000 yuan ($7,547) would secure her parent’s ashes a one-square-meter hillside plot for 20 years, with an option to renew for 50 after that, provided the cemetery had not been pushed out for development.
“If you want the grave to face the pond and valley, which has the best feng shui,” the saleswoman said, “it will cost 70,000 yuan ($10,566). Those are selling quickly; I suggest you buy today. The price will not go down.” The customer quickly chose the tomb with a view.
Michael Meyer, the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Back Streets of a City Transformed.