BEIJING — To understand why China's leaders are jittery about the political fallout from rising inflation, it helps to wander city markets and listen to Chinese consumers grumble about rising prices.
"The price of everything has just gone mad," griped Zhou Qiongfang, a housekeeper, as she looked over slabs of raw pork at a wholesale market.
"At every meal, I eat less," she added.
Heeding the chorus of complaints, China's leaders pledged anew Thursday to stabilize prices and rein in inflation, which hit an 11-year high of 7.1 percent early this year. It marked the second straight day of such promises.
If China is unable to tame its rising prices, American consumers are likely to suffer. With the U.S. economy already dependent on a wide variety of goods — from Nike shoes to vitamins _that are made in China, the combination of China's inflation and a weakening U.S. dollar certainly will jack up prices.
The battle against inflation "will be the No. 1 item on our agenda," said Ma Kai, China's top economic planner.
Other economic and banking officials said China would use a variety of economic tools — including currency revaluation and interest-rate hikes — to meet a target that Premier Wen Jiabao set a day earlier of pulling down inflation to 4.8 percent this year.
Rising inflation, just an economic nuisance a few months ago, could turn into a political problem for China's leaders, whose legitimacy rests partly on delivering steady improvement in standards of living. Rising global energy prices and catastrophic snowstorms a month ago in China have caused food prices to shoot up.
Inflation in China hits particularly hard at urban residents on fixed incomes, such as retirees and factory workers, many of whom have seen a sudden erosion in their rising living standards.
"People complain more. They say, 'How come the prices go up so quickly?' " said Yang Huaming, a 25-year-old salesman who was shopping for food.
Some economists doubt that China can bring down inflation significantly this year.
"We think the government is too optimistic," analyst Ma Jun of Deutsche Bank's Hong Kong office said in a research report to clients. "We believe that the government is still underestimating the risk of inflation, as it did in the past six months."
He said that inflation was likely to remain at a stubbornly high 6.4 percent this year.
Ma Kai, China's chief planner, alternated at a news conference between giving bold pledges to ensure that inflation doesn't accelerate from trot to canter and suggesting that there are justifiable reasons for some price increases.
He said that the price of pork, a Chinese staple, had remained depressed for a decade until last year, when various factors brought it back up to 1997 levels.
"Given the past decade of cost increases and our own income rises, comrades, the price hikes are quite reasonable," he said.
China is the world's biggest pork producer. Chinese eat slightly more than 86 pounds of pork a year on average, compared with about 64 pounds for Americans. But an outbreak of deadly blue ear disease last year, coinciding with rising grain prices, led some small-scale pig farmers to give up. Pig production is expected to fall 10 percent this year, even as pork prices have risen nearly 60 percent in the past year.
It isn't just meat that's soared in price. Vegetables, rice and cooking oil all have climbed in recent months, and manufacturers in other sectors are eager to pass along increased energy costs to consumers.
Economists say that even the small jump in the inflation rate has shocked Chinese.
"If you have experienced a low inflation period, say, of 1 percent to 1.5 percent a year, then suddenly it goes to 5 or 7 percent, it gives people . . . a very negative expectation of the future," said Zhao Xijun, the deputy director of the School of Finance at People's University of China.
China posted annual inflation rates of 1.8 percent in 2005, 1.1 percent in 2006 and 4.8 percent in 2007.
In a state of the nation speech to the rubber-stamp National People's Congress, Premier Wen said Wednesday that the government would take steps to boost production of meat, grains and vegetable oil to stabilize prices. In the interim, he added, it would boost imports of key foodstuffs.
Expanding on the policy at a joint news conference with central bank Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan, Ma Kai said the government would "crack down on practices of colluding and hoarding." Zhou said he'd consider raising interest rates or accelerating the revaluation of the Chinese currency, the yuan.
"Moderate or faster yuan appreciation helps ease inflation," Zhou said. "To curb inflation, we will mainly resort to tightened monetary policies and other policy measures."
Consumers' growing distress reminds some of the double-digit inflation that preceded political unrest in the late 1980s, including during the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Living standards have risen sharply since then, yet consumers easily spook at the prospect of price instability.
"I'm worried that prices will keep going up," said Song Qibing, a 62-year-old guard at a construction site. "If prices go up, I don't have enough."