Posting has been light – thin, even – and will continue to be so for the next couple of days while I finish a reporting trip up north. But briefly, I thought it worth mentioning that the city of Shanghai is running out of diesel. Or, to put it more accurately, the Shanghai Economic Commission is trying to allay fears caused by recent and ongoing diesel shortages by claiming that Shanghai has a “more than” ten day supply of the fuel.
This is big news that should not be news to anyone. For the last couple of weeks Chinese media and foreign news wires (especially, financial-oriented ones) have been reporting fuel shortages in Guangdong and in the outskirts of Shanghai (last week, I reported fuel lines in Shanghai, and explained their origins). For now, this story is the best analysis of the shortages that I’ve read this week.
Anyway, my reason for mentioning the shortages is two-fold. First, it’s a very, very significant story that neatly depicts the ongoing power and failure of China’s central economic planners. I’ve taken some heat, recently, for having the nerve to suggest that China – in many ways – is becoming less market oriented. This story is a good rebuttal to those rebukes: if not for price-controls, there would be no fuel shortages or rationing in Shanghai at the moment (because refiners would actually be allowed to refine US$100/barrel crude at a profit). Of course, there might be other problems, including price riots. But riots, too, would highlight the absurdity of Beijing’s ongoing ham-handed attempts to control vulnerable parts of the Chinese economy.
Second, and perhaps more interesting, the lack of coverage highlights the gaping disconnect between the interests of the foreign media in China, and the interests of the average Chinese. As anybody reading this blog surely knows, the foreign media in China has devoted significant resources over the last two weeks to covering (or, more accurately, trying to cover) the ethnic unrest in Tibet and other Western Chinese provinces. That, too, is an important story. But as a matter of concern to the average Chinese (most of whom live outside of Tibetan areas), it ranks far below price inflation and the sudden and unnecessary fuel shortages that are now hitting China’s financial heart (imagine how the New York Times would cover sudden, government-induced fuel shortages in the New York City metropolitan area).
Yet despite the intense importance of the story in China, it is receiving almost no coverage from that foreign media (the “major” outlets – say, the IHT – are using wire reports while their regular contributors are presumably, out West, or trying to get there). Why? Is one really more important than the other in a global sense? Or is it just the case that foreign editors, journalists, and their readers are more interested in one over the other (for whatever reason)? It seems to me that this is a question worth asking as the pool of aggressive reporters covering China (most, with no China experience whatsoever) begins to expand in advance of the Olympics.
[Quick addendum: I don't mean to imply that Tibet is unimportant, or that reporters are wrong to be spending so much time trying to cover it. It is important, and foreign media should cover it (and should be allowed to cover it, damn it).]