Why Xi Jinping launched ‘Clean Plate’ campaign

In the earlier two parts of this article we discussed the increasing relative poverty and wealth inequality in China. We also discussed the looming food shortage resulting in panic imports of grain. In the face of all this, Xi Jinping claims that there is enough food and the Clean Plate Campaign is only for moral reasons. Morality and truth do not go well with Chinese leadership where everything like the “People’s Republic”, the “People’s Liberation Army”, and the People’s Committees and Commissions belong to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with people needed only to strengthen these. The Party calls itself Communist, but the country is called Socialist with Chinese Characteristics, which has translated into full freedom for the Party capitalists to earn, pile and export wealth. It maintains a cadre at home and abroad that brutally suppresses any dissent and criticism. This odd political creature brings to mind the “Hipporhinostricow” of Spike Milligan:

“If you laugh at the “Hipporhinostricow” You’re bound to get into an awful row; The creature is protected you see from silly people like you and me.”

Yet, no nation, howsoever big and powerful, can ride roughshod over the will of the masses for too long. In its heydays, the Roman Empire was mighty, yet its rulers paid obeisance to the people’s power through a system called Cura Annonae, which recognised that a food shortage or high inflation could lead to riots and political instability. Since Rome did not produce enough food for its people, large quantities of grain were imported from Sicily, Sardinia, Carthage and Egypt. In the name of Goddess Annona, free food was provided to Rome’s 200,000 poorest inhabitants, free of cost. Emperor Tiberius wrote that if Cura Annonae were neglected, it would lead to the ruin of the empire. In subsequent history too, rulers both benevolent and tyrannical, have been very wary of food shortage, rise in food prices and the resultant food riots. Political writers have called food riots impulsive, spontaneous, defensive, apolitical and community-based that assert a right called the “Moral Economy of the Crowds” which, during food shortages, challenges the market economy of the normal period.

In China itself, there were serious food riots during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. Starving people called Jimin, attacked granaries owned by the wealthy and looted boats carrying grain on the Yangtze River. Ultimately, it led to the revolution of 1911 and the end of imperial China. Nearer to the present Communist regime, the quintessential original communist regime in the USSR came into being partly because of food shortages. On February 23, 1917, women launched a massive protest near Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) against food shortages. Four days later, the army joined hands with the revolutionaries and three days after that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. The fall of the USSR too was spurred by food shortages. Inefficiencies of the totalitarian regime led Brezhnev to admit that food was ‘’economically and politically’’ the central problem facing the country in the 1981-85 five-year plan. As Gorbachev pushed his perestroika and glasnost, he had to seek food aid from the west, the cold-war enemies, who sent generous amounts. A report in December 1990 in the Baltimore Sun described how TV crew and priests tracked the first batch of food aid to ensure that it reached hospitals and old-age homes and was not hijacked on the way by thieves and black marketeers. The USSR disintegrated in December 1991. All these food shortage driven events, the fall of the dynasties in China and Russia and the implosion of the USSR, had a ground-shaking impact on international relations.

This brings us to the question that the free world faces today – Where is Xi’s China headed with food shortages caused by drought, floods, locusts and rotting old stocks? Will the Clean Plate Campaign be enough to hold on the tide of disaffection of the marginalized people even as they see the increasing opulence of the few? Being pushed by the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, China’s wealth by itself may not enable it to buy all the food it needs to make up the shortfall. Panic buying by China in the last few months, not only of food but also of oil and steel indicates this realization on the part of China’s leadership. Is the free world reaching a point where it will stop counting coins and start counting principles?

The free world seems in a better position than China to boost domestic consumption to offset the loss of the Chinese market. China is more dependent on exports to keep its industries running than any other major country. The only bottleneck for countries like Australia, Canada or the US is surplus agriculture production, which is at present being mopped up by China. The ingenuity and spirit of enterprise of the west may yet kick in and part of the agriculture produce may be converted to industrial products like alcohol, biofuels and greener plastic substitutes. China has tried to push domestic consumption but exports represent such a large part of its GDP that the loss of overseas markets will severely hit employment and wealth creation. There are also clear indications that, in spite of its theft of western technologies through Chinese researchers embedded in western universities, China is still a long way from the cutting-edge technologies. An example is computer chip manufacture, where the advanced chips are still imported from the west to the tune of $300 billion a year. If the west closes this door, it will hit not only some of China’s claims like providing the world with Huawei’s 5G (the cheapest, yet laden with security risks), but will also seriously hinder advanced defence manufacture. All the boasts of China landing on the far side of the moon or making aircraft-carrier killer missiles have at their heart some critical technology still imported from the west. It is a sad commentary on the dichotomy of business interests and national interest that such technology was continuously shared with a regime that, since its inception in 1949, has harboured the avowed aim of destroying parliamentary democracies.

If push comes to shove and China is not able to buy the much-needed food and keep its access to the markets of the free world, leading to large-scale unemployment, what will Xi and his CCP do to distract people? Will there be merely another campaign or they will do something worse? When Mao’s China faced the worst famine in human history during 1958-62, his distraction comprised an attack on a totally unprepared India as till shortly before the attack, Mao had sworn by the Panchsheel. If Xi opts for a similar distraction, he will have the choice of attacking India or Taiwan. Taiwan is more vulnerable but has the certainty of inviting US intervention. Trump has shown increasing willingness for such intervention and US allies opening up to Taiwan are further encouraging him. Attacking India will give us a scarred face but will give China also a bloody nose, as India of 2020 is a different narrative than she was in 1962. If history is any guide, totalitarian dictators do not bother hurting their own country if it prolongs their rule. The odds indicate the India-China border getting progressively hotter as the CCP faces its worst existential threat since 1949.

Shall the free world continue to fiddle in Nero-like detachment as it did when Fascist Hitler chewed large parts of Europe bordering Germany till the monster became too menacing to be ignored? It remains to be seen if the democratic world will marshal their resources to weaken the communist party in China and to strengthen the voice of democratic forces in that country. Failure to do so may inflict a catastrophe on the world before which the Second World War may look like a skirmish.

Source : Daily World

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

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