President Xi Jinping launched ‘Operation Clean Plate’ last fortnight to prepare China for a potential food crisis, contributed in part by the diplomatic muscle-flexing he has pursued abroad to bolster his standing at home. But Beijing’s aggressive manoeuvres in Ladakh, the South China Sea and beyond – seen to have been prompted by a design to divert attention from domestic troubles – have cratered China’s relations with its neighbours and soured relations with its three important food suppliers – the United States, Canada and Australia.
As it is, China’s ultra-nationalistic wolf warrior diplomacy and the aggressive military posture by People’s Liberation?Army in Ladakh is a throw-back to 1962 when the then paramount leader Mao Zedong used the border skirmish with India to mask the failed Great Leap Foward movement that killed millions of Chinese of hunger.
Xi Jinping’s renewed focus on the crash diet last month had immediately set off speculation that his government expects its food supply to get worse.
China had seen it coming. Back in May, Premier Li Keqiang had promised to draw up a food security plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, assuring parliament that China could ensure food for its 1.4 billion people ‘through our own efforts’, reward higher yield of grains and promote the recovery of pig production.
Agriculture minister Han Changfu had added that the African swine fever that led to the killing or culling of 100 million pigs was a threat but there won’t be a big increase in price of pork, a staple food for many families that makes China its world’s biggest consumer. Official statistics, however, indicate food prices went up by 13 per cent in July compared with a year ago and the price of pork, by about 85 per cent.
The surge of crippling floods in the Yangtze River basin, the source of most of China’s rice, had affected production and transportation, disrupted lives of millions and left behind large swaths of farmland under water. The Qingyi river, an upper Yangtze tributary, saw its worst flooding in a century.
Already, according to data from the China General Administration of Customs, China’s grain imports had risen by 22.7 per cent (to 74.51 million tonnes) in between January and July as compared to the same period last year. Wheat imports saw a 197 per cent year-on-year increase with import of 910,000 tonnes. During the month, corn imports also went up, year-on-year, by 23 per cent to 880,000 tonnes.
To be sure, China and its state-funded institutes have denied that a shortage of domestic food was round the corner. China’s state media said the summer grain output had reached a record high of 142.8 billion kg this year.
“There is no need to worry,” said a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on August 17. But the report cautioned, according to news agency AFP, that China’s “food shortfall” will increase in coming years unless major agricultural reforms are undertaken.
China’s state media has linked Xi Jinping’s campaign to the global food crisis predicted by the United Nations, a warning that was repeated by the world body two months back when it asked governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster. The underlying theme of the narrative has been that for China, the real threat to food security comes from food wastage rather than epidemic or floods.
China does waste an awful amount of food. Ordering or serving more food than is needed is seen as a measure of the host’s hospitality. The state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences estimated that 17 million to 18 million tons of food served in big cities in 2015 was wasted, enough to feed a country the size of South Korea.