Parts of China are facing severe fuel shortages, sparking hot tempers and long lines at the pump reminiscent of 1970s America.
Drivers in southern China have been queuing for as long as three hours for a tank of gasoline this week, only to face limits on spending and prohibitions against filling spare containers.
In Guangzhou city, protests erupted briefly at the Luoxi gas station yesterday after attendants provided dwindling supplies to police who jumped to the front of the queue. After a busy morning, Luoxi tapped out.
"People were in a panic. Many were shouting," said Huang Peixian, head of the Luoxi station, which is affiliated with Chinese oil giant China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., known as Sinopec. "We just told them it would be worse if the police had no cars to drive."
In the 1970s, a Middle East embargo on oil exports to the United States sparked long waits for gasoline, roiled the economy and led to the adoption of new fuel-efficiency standards. Today, China's voracious demand for oil is beginning to pinch consumers, creating another test for a government struggling to manage the stresses of a surging economy and a demanding middle class.
Chinese officials blame a typhoon for delaying oil shipments to the country's ports. But the shortfalls are expected to worsen regardless of the weather, industry executives say.
One reason is that China lacks sufficient capacity at its refineries. In addition, owners of the expanding fleets of private cars and taxis in some of China's biggest cities have been caught in a government juggling act that has sought to keep domestic fuel prices low even as crude oil hits new global highs.
Chinese refineries, as a result, often opt to sell their products overseas, where they command higher prices than at home, said K.F. Yan, an analyst in Beijing for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm.
"China will suffer more severe supply constraints as long as the government is reluctant to raise diesel prices," he said.
The problems reflect official resistance toward removing vestiges of China's centrally planned economy, which for decades kept prices of food staples, gasoline and utilities artificially low. During a 20-year overhaul of the economy, most of China's price controls have disappeared. But Beijing has kept a tight grip on fuel prices because they are central to the cost of transportation, utilities and industrial production.
A series of recent, modest price increases for fuel indicate that the government is becoming braver about inflation, said Stephen Green, senior China economist for Standard Chartered in Shanghai. "Wholesale reform of the energy pricing system now seems on the cards -- although of course it will be gradual," he wrote in a report published last week.
Price pressures already are affecting China's overall economy. Chinese airlines have been lacerated by high fuel prices, and executives are bracing for tougher times.
The effect of higher fuel prices extends beyond the economy. The frictions are the latest sign of an increasingly assertive middle class, which has mobilized with growing frequency to protest unfair seizure of properties, stock market losses and dirty air and water.
This month, taxi drivers in Shanghai, the country's prosperous financial center, threatened to strike, partly because rising fuel prices were squeezing their margins. In response, the Shanghai government promised to extend emergency subsidies to taxi drivers, fending off both a strike and an increase in cab fares that could anger consumers.
On Sunday, Guangzhou city officials called a meeting with oil executives, who promised that shortages would be relieved within three days.
Ellen Zhu contributed to this report.