Why Xi Jinping launched the ‘clean plate’ campaign

In the first part of this article we analysed the reasons for increase in rural poverty in China relative to urban prosperity due to focus of the state on urbanization, urban infrastructure and industries and the service sector. This is not to belittle the high agriculture productivity achieved in China. The average productivity for whole of that country for wheat and rice compares with that of Punjab, which is highest for India. However, China is three times the size of India but has lesser arable land. For both rice and wheat, acreage in China has been declining while it has been increasing in India though overall production of these grains is 50% higher in China than in India.

China has boosted productivity through much higher application of fertilisers, though heavy subsidies and through “rice bag” responsibility system for provincial governors, which casts a responsibility on them to balance supply and demand. The subsidies are huge though reliable data from that country is difficult to come by. A document of the Chinese State Council’s Development Research Centre calculated that in 2012 the state contributed more than 1200 Yuan (more than $190 at 6.3 Yuan/$ in 2012) per tonne of grain in terms of subsidies and other agricultural support. For comparison, US wheat was around $280 per tonne in that year which was a record high.

The growth in productivity in agriculture hits a peak sooner or later unless there is a major technological breakthrough. This has happened in Punjab and it can be presumed that it might have already happened in China. With rising prosperity of urban areas, share of meat in diet has increased and correspondingly corn imports have been very high. Simultaneously, villages around expanding urban areas have increasingly taken to producing milk, meat and vegetables, leading to reduction in area under wheat and rice. The new activities, though lucrative, require much higher levels of chemicals and inorganic fertilisers and use of plastics and have contributed significantly to environmental degradation. Even the economic advantage can become illusory as happened last year when the spread of swine flue compelled pig farmers to destroy their livestock. A report by China’s Bureau of Statistics said that China’s pig population had fallen by 40 million while Rabobank said this was an underestimation and the number could be as high as 200 million. In December 2019, pork prices in China were up by 97% as compared to December 2018.

In spite of many fervent declarations about food self-sufficiency, China has been importing increasing quantity of grains, both for human consumption as well as for cattle feed. Such imports helped China gain influence with the leaders of these countries who won the support of farming lobby by securing orders from China. But this happy scenario suffered a crash with the advent of Covid 19. The secretive communist state did all in its power to hold back information from the world directly and through WHO. Nations of the world reacted with anger and indignation at this social and economic disaster inflicted upon them and demanded not only an investigation but also a de coupling from China. The very nations, US, Canada and Australia, that used to feel thrilled selling their grain surpluses to China are at the forefront of the demand for winning succour from dependence on China.

A triple whammy of drought, floods and pests has added to the woes of the rural poor. The wheat growing regions suffered serious drought. China’s State Grain and Reserves Administration estimated in July that the major wheat producing provinces in the north, eastern and central China would produce only about half the wheat output of last year. The output of corn and soybean was also lower. Soon thereafter, the rice producing south and south east came in the grip of recurrent floods, the fifth wave of which is still continuing. The Yangtze River basin has been flooded for the last two months at a level that is endangering the safety of the Three Gorges dam. This region produces 70% of China’s rice output. The western region has lost some part of its agriculture production to locus attacks. In the face of all this, the state and the party has been claiming that there is no crisis as the country has reserves equal to one year’s consumption. China has been importing grains for the last several years, with almost panic imports this year,raising the reserves to consumption ratio to 45% against FAO recommendation of 17%. Some of these reserves are too old to befit for human consumption. In July, a video circulated on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) showed old grain stocks reduced to a powdery substance in state’s Sinograin warehouse. Rather than come out with the truth about the scale of the problem, the authorities issued an order banning the carrying of phones and cameras to the warehouses!

When Mao faced a famine of monumental proportions in 1958-1962 after the failed Great Leap forward, he launched the sparrow elimination campaign, blaming the little birds for the food shortage. Once the sparrows were eliminated, thriving insects caused more agriculture losses, forcing Mao to import 250,000 sparrows from the USSR. Now, once again, the expected food shortages are creating a spectre of rural unrest and damage to larger-than-life image of a prosperous China cultivated in the international arena. Xi Jinping has reacted in the classical Mao way claiming that there is enough food in the country but it is immoral to waste food. On August 11, he launched the “Clean Plate Campaign”. In a nation where it was considered a matter of prestige to pile the table with food for guests, a war cry is being heard against wasting food. Social media sites in China used to have extremely popular personalities called “Mukbang” who would devour mountains of food in front of the camera. They rushed to remove these posts, as overnight they become objects of shame. People visiting restaurants were asked to order one meal less than the number of diners. A wag wondered what a single patron could order – maybe just a “Clean Plate”! The waiters were to advise the diners if they ordered too much food and ensure that the dishes were smaller than before. One restaurant put a weighing scale at the entrance with the message that those already overweight should eat less. True to all-pervasive state power in the communist state, inspectors were posted at major restaurants to report on people who left anything on the plate. The latest to join the bandwagon is China Horse Industry Association (CHIA) that held a conference on August 21 to discuss how to reduce forage consumption by horses!

As the world watches in amusement, Xi Jinping is a worried man. His Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is stuck in the aftermath of the virus with borrowing nations expressing their inability to pay the exorbitant loans. Grabbing collaterals in too many cases, like he did with Shri Lanka’s Hambantota port, would isolate China. His own experts are predicting a whopping 130 million tonnes food shortage by 2025. Eliminating leftovers may not be enough to keep the biggest population on earth satiated. In the concluding part of this article next week, we shall show the implications for the world of a China suffering food shortages and rural poverty.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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