A Crisis in Rice

As the Olympics approach, the West misunderstands Eastern dynamics

Google Trends, which tracks the volume of internet searches, reveals a dramatic spike over the last quarter in searches for “rice price.” This surge in interest comes with cause: last week, industrial market prices for rice soared to US$1,000 a ton, up from $360 a ton at the start of 2007—a colossal leap, of proportions unheard of since the OPEC oil squeeze of the 1970s.

Yet, the price inquiries being chronicled by Google are not coming from Western computers, but from the epicenter of the price hike’s impact. The top-ranked countries by volume of searches are the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Thailand. In the West, people are preoccupied with the “credit crunch,” “Tibet,” “human rights” and the “Olympics boycott”.

As the media and consumers of Europe and the United States distract themselves with China’s efforts to avoid a public-relations catastrophe before and during the Beijing Olympics, perhaps they should pay more heed to another growing problem. Though the nascent squeeze on rice supplies appears to have remained under the Western radar thus far, it has the potential to directly affect more people and cause even more violence than the horrors we have heard of from Tibet.

In the Philippines, the National Bureau of Investigation has prioritized disbanding rice hoarding rings over tracking terrorists. The police in India are busting into warehouses hoarding rice, while over 50 Bangladeshi workers were injured in hunger riots as even their government was unable to buy any rice at all last week. Crowds in Thailand rioted so much over food shortages that government elections were postponed. Closer to the U.S., Haiti’s Prime Minister was forced to resign following hunger riots that killed 4 and injured 20, and the poor there are now eating mud patties mixed with oil and sugar because they cannot afford anything more.

These riots threaten to be a harbinger of a growing global problem, with its own share of violence and deaths in high-population, low-income countries.

Despite being the world’s largest consumers of rice, China has remained unusually quiet. Chinese Premier Wen Jia-Bao denied that rice shortages or price hikes will be a problem for Chinese consumers and a few weeks ago, revealed secret state reserves of rice in excess of 150 million tons to prove his point.

Thus, the divergence between East and West observed on the internet plays out again on a geopolitical scale: While the Western media has made its focus on China’s high-handed approach in Tibet, China has been more concerned with keeping its people from starving and growing restless. Despite the obvious injustice in Tibet, the prospect of much of mainland China exploding with the kind of hunger riots raging elsewhere is one that features too many human rights violations to count. In that event, the government would have likely no less hesitation in striking out against its own people than against Tibetans.

All this isn’t to say that a perhaps misdirected Western emphasis on Tibet accomplishes nothing: the Beijing Olympics have left China uniquely exposed to global scrutiny. Thus, the Chinese government must minimize camera-friendly acts of aggression beyond what is absolutely necessary in the coming months. We are left wondering how this P.R.-friendly policy might evolve after closing ceremonies conclude and the press pool moves elsewhere.

Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot house.