Angry Post-Quake Protests in China Over Rising Food Prices

2013-04-24
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An elderly couple cries in front of a damaged house in Ya'an, April 23, 2013.
AFP

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have warned local businesses and shut down a noodle shop after it became the focus of an angry protest over skyrocketing food prices in the wake of an earthquake over the weekend which left hundreds dead or missing.

Police were called in to disperse a crowd of survivors and rescue volunteers in the quake-hit county town of Lushan after more than 1,000 people gathered outside the shop, known as "Fatty Yang's," angered over increased prices.

"There were a lot of people outside his shop on [Tuesday] evening," said a resident of Yingjing county, who gave only her surname, Liu.

"They wanted to tear down his sign, but then the local police came to the scene, as well as the relevant officials, and sorted it out," she said.

"[Local officials] withdrew his business license and other licenses," she said.

Online posts said "Fatty Yang's" had hiked the price of a bowl of noodles from five yuan (U.S. $0.81) to 20 yuan (U.S. $3.24) in the wake of the magnitude 7 earthquake which hit the area around Ya'an city on Saturday, leaving more than 200 people dead or missing, and thousands injured and homeless.

But the shop's owner denied the reports.

"More than 1,000 people attacked my shop and smashed it up," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "I called the police, but when they came, they pulled down my sign. The government pulled it down [too]."

"My view is that I was made a scapegoat," he said. "The government could have told the truth, but they pulled down [my sign], which is the same as telling people that I really did such a bad thing, isn't it?"

He said the government had listened to online rumors. "They closed my business down without any evidence," Yang said. "This never happened, but it went viral on the microblogs, and couldn't be undone."

"I feel very unjustly treated."

Rumors of hikes

Liu said she had seen "more than 1,000" at the scene, and "more than 100" police officers.

She said she had also heard that the price of noodles at Yang's had risen to 20 yuan, while a dumpling shop two blocks away was charging at least three times as much for its dumplings as before the quake.

"We local people went to tell them that that this isn't acceptable; that's it's damaging the reputation of our county town," Liu said.

An employee at a supermarket on the same street said police had reasoned with the crowd, promising that the government would take the matter in hand.

"Then the government pulled down the shop's sign using an earth-digger," she said. "After that, people calmed down a bit and then they left."

Photos posted online of the incident showed a large crowd gathered, blocking a street, facing off with a police car, while others showed police sealing off the scene with incident tape.

Online comments were largely supportive of the protest. "They should smash it," wrote microblog user @pengkang. "The disaster should be first and foremost, but they are putting up prices. Where is their compassion?"

In response, the Yingjing county government posted on its official account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo: "All of the people of Yingjing county protest the illegal and profiteering price-hikes by individual food sellers, and we are very angry about this too."

It said commercial affairs officials had shut down some offending businesses for investigation, and temporarily withdrawn their business licenses, promising "severe punishment" for businesses that acted outside the law.

Repeated calls to the Yingjing county government went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

Lacking relief

Five days after the earthquake, measured by China's earthquake administration at magnitude 7.0 and by the U.S. Geological Survey at 6.6, hit Lushan county near Ya'an, many villagers say they still lack sufficient relief supplies.

Survivors of Saturday's tremor have been protesting severe food shortages, as well as a lack of warm bedding, bottled water and tents, amid widespread power outages.

Heavy rainfall and landslides in the mountainous quake zone have hampered relief efforts since Sunday, prompting quake survivors to demonstrate with placards.

In Baoxing county, more than 100 villagers surrounded local officials, holding up cardboard signs and banners which read: "Freezing to death, starving to death," and "The officials get fat, and don't care any more."

A Baoxing-based volunteer surnamed Xu said local people had converged on the local police station for relief supplies, prompting clashes on one occasion.

"That day, I had just got to Lingtang village, and there were more than 1,000 villagers there without any material resources at all," she said.

"All the survivors are very upset and anxious, so they went to the county government leaders and the police station to demand that they hand out supplies and sort things out."

She said supplies of bottled water were particular tight, forcing villagers to fall back on local streams and rivers, which were known to be polluted.

"That water isn't fit for drinking," Xu said. "But they are a long way from the county town, and the power and water supplies have been cut off."

"They have been drinking that water, and they have diarrhea."

Shortage of supplies

Meanwhile, a resident of Wangjia village surnamed Zheng said their supply of tents had arrived late on Tuesday, and were still not enough to give shelter to all amid continuing rainstorms.

"We still don't have any quilts, and we don't have enough water," he said. "The tents came on Tuesday evening, so now we are 10 to a tent, sometimes more than that."

"There was a huge rainstorm on Tuesday evening, so the temperature is falling. It's very cold."

An official who answered the phone at the Sichuan provincial emergency response center said 21 people were still missing following the quake.

"All departments are doing everything they can to find out what happened to them," she said."

"All efforts to move relief supplies [to the quake-hit area] are continuing," she added.

Saturday's quake struck along the same fault-line as a devastating 7.9 quake in May 2008, which left 90,000 people dead or missing.

Reported by Lin Jing and Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.