FORGET about the inflation rate or any other ``misery index.'' Beijing can use a simpler measure of public discontent during today's Mid-Autumn Festival: moon cakes. Constrained by economic hardship and tighter state controls since the suppression of the democracy movement in June, Chinese are buying fewer of the golden cakes than during the millennia-old celebration last year.
``They're more expensive,'' says Liu Xinyin as a clerk drops a half dozen of the rich, fruit- or meat-filled pastries into a bag at a Beijing market.
``But everything has gone up in price and we've got to buy them because this is a Chinese tradition,'' Liu says. He clutches the bag of palm-sized sweets and plows through the crowd pressed against the pastry counter.
It is unlikely that money matters will throw a pall over tonight's festive moon-gazing. Observing the traditional Chinese calendar that marks today as mid-fall, Beijing cake buyers will join their kin under the cool evening sky to munch on the cakes, sip tea, admire the full moon, and celebrate family unity.
Nevertheless, the fall in the ``moon cake index'' is yet another sign of the severe economic challenges confronting a socialist leadership preoccupied by the need to feed and clothe its citizenry.
The wholesale price of moon cakes has jumped 29 percent since the festival last year, more than the 25.5 percent annual retail price increase in China's cities, says Cai Yuanshen, planning director at the Beijing Cakes and Foodstuffs Industry Corporation.
``The masses are far less enthusiastic about buying moon cakes than in recent years,'' says Mr. Cai. Sales of the pastries have dropped 22 percent in Shanghai and 20 percent in Guangzhou, according to official press reports.
Also, offices, schools, and factories - virtually every organization under direct state control - have snubbed the confections this year in response to a state order to halt unnecessary spending, Cai says.
The cutback reflects the determination of Beijing to eliminate a severe budget deficit and put the down-to-earth imperative of balanced state finances above high-flown fancies like the moon.
Threatened by fines for spending public money on the sweets, state organs in Shanghai have bought only 10 percent of the cakes on sale there, compared with 40 percent last year, reports Wenhui Daily.
Some cake buyers at Beijing's Dong An Market voiced resentment over what they say is the denial of their just desserts.
``The state owes it to workers to give them moon cakes. It should show appreciation for our hard labor,'' said textile worker Zhang Shijuan at the market's pastry counter.
Rather than buy the cakes, many Chinese are saving money to help the ``people's government'' with its financial troubles by making mandatory purchases of $3.2 billion in special state bonds, Cai says.
``Take me, for instance. I have to save for two or three months in order to buy the national bonds so of course I'm not going to spend much on moon cakes,'' he adds.
Stricter administrative measures accompanying the crackdown on liberal dissent have also left the pastries going stale on store shelves.
After imposing martial law, China's leaders ousted many of the more than 1 million migrant laborers from the capital, fearing that the rootless workers would provoke more unrest.
In recent years the sojourners were eager buyers of the sweets, Cai says.
Moon cakes have always been laced with politics. When gazing at the moon, Chinese traditionally look for the image of the legendary Empress Chang E, who stole an elixir from her husband and fled to the moon in order to prevent the tyrannical emperor from ruling forever.
Zhang Shicheng, the leader of a peasant uprising in 1353, is said to have mustered his conspirators for rebellion during the Mid-Autumn Festival by giving them moon cakes with messages inside.
Would Chinese pack their cakes today with such missives?
``We don't dare,'' says Air China employee Wei Xinghua, packing a shoulder bag with cakes and slipping away through the market crowd.