Clear signs that food shortages are worrying China’s communist overlords

Acceptance of the dictatorial rule of China’s Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping depends on the party’s ability to keep delivering improving material prosperity. But suddenly, there are signs that an adequate food supply is in question, raising the specter of mass hunger or even worse. Bella Huang and Amy Qin report in the New York Times:

Chinese regulators are calling out livestreamers who binge-eat for promoting excessive consumption. A school said it would bar students from applying for scholarships if their daily leftovers exceeded a set amount. A restaurant placed electronic scales at its entrance for customers to weigh themselves to avoid ordering too much.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has declared a war on the “shocking and distressing” squandering of food, and the nation is racing to respond, with some going to greater extremes than others. (snip)

Chinese Banquet Food (Public Domain Photo)

“Cultivate thrifty habits and foster a social environment where waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable,” Mr. Xi said in a directive carried by the official People’s Daily newspaper last week.

Mr. Xi’s edict is part of a broader message from the leadership in recent weeks about the importance of self-reliance in a time of tensions with the United States and other economic partners. The concern is that import disruptions caused by the global geopolitical turmoil, the pandemic and trade tensions with the Trump administration, as well as some of China’s worst floods this year, could cut into food supplies.

Of course, China is trying to blame Trump and the US, even though the U.S. has placed no limitation on food sales to China.  Last year, during an outbreak of African Swine flu, China was forced to slaughter and bury 350 million pigs, severely impacting the supply of China’s favorite meat. That was just the warm up for this year's shortages.

Bloomberg reports:

Bloomberg spoke with almost a dozen agricultural traders, food company officials and industry researchers this week about the initiative, the majority of whom said they believed the push was targeted at reducing dependence on food imports in preparation for possible supply disruptions. China’s Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Fears of supply disruptions due to Covid-19 have caused China’s leaders to re-emphasize food security and self-sufficiency,” said Darin Friedrichs, a senior analyst at StoneX Group Inc. in Shanghai. “This includes diversifying where grain is sourced from abroad, but also making efforts to reduce food waste domestically,” he said.

Political tensions have threatened trade flows in some commodities, and earlier this year governments started reducing exports and safeguarding local supplies because of worries over the coronavirus — limiting the availability of food shipments to other countries. Heavily reliant on protein imports to feed its citizens, concerns about breaks in the global food supply chain are particularly salient for China, whose Communist Party leaders have long made economic development and personal enrichment a centerpiece of their rule.

Mao Zedong was able to win his communist revolution because conditions in China had been worsening for the 3 previous centuries, and life for the vast majority of people was insecure at best. Recurrent famines were a feature of life in the first half of the twentieth century.  Mao delivered a mix of disaster with his Great leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that killed scores of millions, and success with the building of prestige projects and solidifying the regime’s controls on the populace.

With China’s re-entry into the world economy and GATT membership, the standard of living of people, especially those in the cities, has soared.  And with prosperity, the Chinee people have ratcheted up their expectations of their rulers, in part because they have far more exposure than ever before to life overseas through tourism and greater exposure to foreign media.

Ongoing heavy rains and flooding have not only threatened the Three Gorges Dam, they have devastated cropland to an unknown extent.

I doubt that actual famine is in prospect, for China now has the financial ability to purchase food overseas and the logistical capability to distribute it domestically. But food prices are rising and worse may be ahead:  

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, food prices in the country are 10% higher this July compared to last year. The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic in international trade has had a severe impact on China’s economy and cut off many of the supply chains through which it procured various kinds of food items.

China’s worsening relations with countries in its own neighbourhood, and also with the US and Australia — two major sources of food imports — have added to food security concerns. To make matters worse, the recent floods across large swathes of southern China have laid to waste farms and destroyed tonnes of produce. Parts of the country have also had to deal with locust swarms destroying crops.

My guess is that Xi Jinping wants to be free to pressure Trump on multiple fronts, from trade talks to his aggressive claims of sovereignty over key world trade routes in the South China Sea and his strident rhetoric over Taiwan.  That could result in actual limits on US food exports to China, which could cause noticeable pressure on food availability. The “clean plate” campaign and anti-Trump rhetoric are in preparation for further confrontation.