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Diners eat in a Beijing restaurant on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. The government said consumer prices were up 4.9 per cent compared to a year ago.


Living in a country of 1.5 billion people can try one's patience, but the Chinese have a way of shrugging it off - mei banfa, a phrase that translates roughly to "no solution." Train tickets sold out for a week? Mei banfa. Overcrowded subway/market/sidewalk? Mei banfa. No toilet paper? Mei banfa.

And it's with a collective shoulder shrug that many ordinary citizens are greeting the biggest news story coming out of China these days - soaring inflation. Consumer prices in China climbed 4.9 per cent in January compared to the same month a year ago, according to government figures, lower than expected but worrisome nonetheless.

Food prices have been rising for months, and I recently set out to chat with people living and working in the hutong alleyways near my apartment and see how their lives had been affected. The cost of some items had almost doubled in recent weeks and months - but nobody seemed to be too worried about it. There's not much they can do anyway.

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"Yeah, the prices are going up. Mei banfa!" says Ms. Shao, the owner of a tiny convenience store just around the corner from my place. She says the cost of most of the items she sells is on the rise - milk, sugar, beer, cooking oil, flour. Cases of a popular brand of instant noodle are up from 36 yuan ($5.40) last fall to 45 yuan today. All major beer labels are hiking prices.

Ms. Shao has run this convenience store for seven or eight years, and these are the highest prices she's seen. But she's not worried - business is down slightly, but not significantly.

"People seldom complain. They know about inflation. You have to eat."

At a fruit and vegetable shop a few doors down, Mr. Ma is seeing prices for some items go way up. Eggs have gone from 3.5 yuan per jin (a unit of measurement equal to about a half kilogram) to 5 yuan. Cabbage has tripled in price and tomatoes have almost doubled.

Like Ms. Shao, Mr. Ma's not worried about his business, but he's less confident the government will be able to hold its promise of reining in food prices. "Prices will definitely keep rising," he says.

A block away, Ms. Tong, the owner of my local noodle shop, is having a tougher time. Rising costs are eating into her profit and she's having trouble retaining staff.

"Nobody wants to work here. They have to work long hours - it's hard work," she says. "The price of raw materials keeps rising and workers keep asking for raises. I can't afford to rent this place anymore."

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Over her lunch she tells me she's thinking about closing up shop and heading back to her home province of Shandong. Today, however, the restaurant is busy with the lunchtime crowd. She shoos me away. "You get going. I have to get back to work."

Down the street, Boss Liu barely has time for questions his bread stand is so busy. His product has gone up from 0.6 yuan (less than a penny) to 0.8 yuan, and he expects to sell each shao bing - layered flatbread with sesame seeds on top - for 1 yuan each soon enough.

He's not too confident the government will be able to control prices, but his business has been largely unaffected by the inflation crisis.

"Some old women aren't buying them anymore, but maybe just 1 per cent of customers. We'll be OK."

In other words, mei banfa.

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