Bootlegging on the Backroads of Tianjin

AFTER nightfall, trucks loaded with contraband beer rumble down dusty backroads, past cornfields and peasant homes, heading for the thronging markets of this port city. The bootleggers skirt checkpoints manned by highway police and Tianjin officials that are set up to block illicit shipments of beer from across the city's border.

``We have to smuggle it in at night, there are so many checkpoints,'' said a burly Tianjin driver who has made the 90-mile run up to Yutian County Brewery in neighboring Hebei Province.

``Last time they caught us in a truck going to Yutian, we were fined 70 yuan [$15] - even though all we had in back was a gas can!'' another driver said.

In Tianjin and across China, local authorities facing the nation's worst market slump in a decade are setting up trade blockades in an effort to protect their own industries from outside competition. Protectionism is concentrated in provinces where industry is relatively backward, like Jilin and Xinjiang, which this year banned the import of television sets, liquor, and 46 other goods, Chinese officials say.

Along the mountainous borders of Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi this year, some counties illegally issued their own bank notes to compel residents to buy local goods. The notes amounted to 70 percent of the money circulating in the areas, the newspaper Economic Information reported.

But even the more advanced cities, like Tianjin and Beijing, have barred outside washing machines, bicycles, and other goods, says Commerce Ministry official Zhang Caiqing.

The regional blockades may help rescue struggling local factories and keep some blue-collar workers on the job and off the streets. But they are also drawing resistance from angry entrepreneurs and miffed consumers, who want a choice of higher quality, brand-name goods.

``Yutian beer is the `recognized' beer of Tianjin,'' said a man at a downtown grocery.

Fearing the small but dynamic Yutian Brewery will capture more of the market from the city's five state-run breweries, Tianjin's government imposed a 30,000 ton ceiling last April on the sale of outside beer, city officials say. Estimates of Yutian's current market share range from 30 to 50 percent of the 120,000 ton total.

To evade the quota, stores transport the beer at night or bribe local officers, although the latter ``means a lot of `unhealthy tendencies,''' Yutian Brewery director Chen Shizeng said in a telephone interview from his Yutian office.

Competitive market forces will eventually bring down the trade blockades, and the protected enterprises will suffer, he predicts. ``A market means competition. Protection can't work forever,'' he says.

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