China Targets the Coronavirus, and Farmers Pay a Price

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Xu Zhihua, chief executive of sportswear brand Peak, wrote on his Weibo account: “The whole society has come to a standstill with almost zero consumption.” He worries that a lot of small- and medium-size companies won’t be able to pay back their loans. “Then the whole economy will be finished!” he added.

More broadly, the coronavirus crisis emerged at a time when many small and medium size business were already struggling. China’s growth has eased to its slowest pace in nearly three decades. The trade war with the United States has rippled through parts of the country. Many people complain that the state-run banking system won’t lend them money at a reasonable rate.

The Chinese government is also crowding them out. Big state-run companies are taking an increasingly important role in the economy, in a reversal of the trend of opening up to private enterprise that helped drive China’s success. The Chinese government interferes more online and increasingly demands that businesses pay greater heed to directives from the Communist Party.

As the coronavirus has spread, Beijing officials have taken a heavier hand to control prices. For example, the government in Baoding, in the central province of Hebei, fined a shopping mall company nearly $300,000 for selling cabbages and cauliflowers at higher prices. Of course, China is hardly alone in punishing price gouging, and it won public praise for fining some pharmacies for raising prices of face masks, which are in short supply all over China.

“If cabbages were easily available, the store wouldn’t be able to charge higher prices — nobody would buy it,” said Liu Xuanhua, an economist. “If the outbreak continues, our ignorance about the market economy could end with us having nowhere to buy vegetables.”

Some industries, like chicken farmers, are trying to get the government’s attention. Farmers have created a sort of social media campaign to petition the government to open special transportation channels for their supplies.

Even the agricultural bureau in Huangmei County in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, filed an official plea to the local virus prevention headquarters to ease traffic controls so local farmers could buy feed and medicine, according to a document circulated online.

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