WHEN people think of a large Asian country on the brink of deflation, they probably have Japan in mind. But China, the biggest of them all, is now skirting close to outright falls in prices across a wide swathe of the economy. Producer prices have been declining for nearly three years and consumer price inflation is mired at its lowest level since 2010.

Deflation is rightly feared by central bankers around the world as a most destructive economic force, making debts more expensive in real terms and leading to a vicious cycle of contraction as consumers delay purchases and companies put off investments. Yet the Chinese central bank has been remarkably laid-back about the downward lilt in prices. The most obvious tool in its kit to arrest the slide would be to cut interest rates, but it has not done so since July 2012; the benchmark one-year lending rate remains lofty at 6%. What explains the central bank's calm in the face of falling prices, and is it making a big mistake?

Inflation data published on Monday provide the latest evidence of China's descent towards deflation. The consumer price index (CPI) rose 1.6% in October from a year earlier, the lowest since the start of 2010. Month-on-month CPI inflation was flat, falling back from September's 0.5% increase. Core inflation, stripping out volatile food and energy prices, ticked down to 1.4% year-on-year in October, below the 1.7% average over the previous nine months. Meanwhile, the producer price index (PPI) ran deeper into negative territory. Prices of goods as they left factory gates fell 2.2% in October from a year earlier, steeper than the 1.8% decline in September. PPI has been in deflation for 32 straight months.