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China's Leadership Scrambles to Head Off Discontent Over Risking Pork Prices

Prices in China for pork, a staple of the Chinese diet, have increased by almost 10 per cent in recent weeks, largely as a result of an illness called "blue ear disease" that has decimated pig herds. Chinese leaders are afraid the price rises could lead to instability, and are scrambling to ensure that poorer families have enough food. Sam Beattie reports from Beijing.

Pork is China's favorite meat. In 2006, the average Chinese ate almost 20 kilograms of pork.

Now there is a shortage of pork, due to a disease in the south that led to the death of more than a million pigs, and an increase in grain prices. The result has been a rise of almost 10 percent in the average price of the meat.

The Chinese take their food very seriously, and the leaders fear that taking away a major part of the public's diet - at least among those who cannot afford the higher prices - could trigger instability.

Steven Tsang is an expert in Chinese studies and politics at St. Anthony's College, Oxford University. He says the government is concerned that a deprived population could get very angry.

"The Chinese Government is very concerned about issues of instability," he said. "There is almost ingrained fear of chaos amongst Chinese leaders, and Chinese society has a propensity to become more prone to rioting and other social instability in a time of crisis.

The leaders have reacted quickly to the rising prices. Government subsidies for pork producers have been announced to encourage hog rearing and boost the depleted numbers.

Pork is also getting priority on transport systems, in order to ensure an adequate supply of the meat to the cities, where tension over inflated prices is thought most likely to occur.

Premier Wen Jiabao announced this week that the government is considering releasing stocks from the national pork strategic reserve. China has a reserve of key food groups such as grain and pork that can be used in times of difficulty to subsidize food prices.

China has been stung by a series of food quality scares in recent months, including an illegal chemical exported to North America that killed or sickened thousands of cats and dogs, illegal dyes used to make foods more attractive, and the use of dangerous pesticides.

Oxford University's Tsang says maintaining surveillance over food quality is very important. He notes that during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease several years ago, some people tried to profit from the shortage by digging up the carcasses of slaughtered cattle and selling the infected meat in local markets. He believes this could easily happen in the case of diseased pigs.

"It's difficult to see how that problem can be completely prevented in a situation where pork prices are rising, and people have lost a sense of moral integrity, and the idea of profiteering is general and widesprea," Tsang said.

While China makes huge strides in exports and the general standard of living, its young market economy still struggles to handle short-term crises like this one.

Such items as food stability are still very much dependent on the central government.