There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world.
China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland.
The situation has been further compounded by plagues of locusts and fall armyworm infestations in other regions, where fields have been stripped bare, and three huge typhoons last month making landfall in northeastern China.
China is also still recovering from a major outbreak of African swine flu, which last year wiped out 40 percent of its hog population.
Food prices increased 13 percent in July, with pork prices rising by an eye-watering 85 percent, Chinese government data showed. There are reports of farmers hoarding crops, expectating even higher prices.
After initially trumpeting “bumper harvests,” Chinese state media have switched from cover-up to behavior control, touting a national “Clean your plate” campaign on food wastage. Last month, Xi called on the Chinese public to “cultivate thrifty habits, and foster a social environment where waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable.”
The propaganda has shades of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) call for Chinese citizens to eat only two meals a day at the onset of the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961.
All the signs point to a significant fall in domestic agricultural output, and it is uncertain whether China will be able to plug the gap with imports, while also keeping a lid on soaring prices.
Food shortages look to be more than just a short-term blip. As China has become more affluent, diets — and waistlines — have expanded, putting a strain on supply and demand. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that China’s domestic supply of rice, wheat and corn will fall short of demand by 25 million tonnes by the end of 2025. This raises the question, how can China feed its 1.4 billion people in the long term?
Food security might become a new strategic battlefront. In the past few years, the Chinese government has invested heavily in Africa’s agricultural sector as part of a wider strategy that incentivizes Chinese food conglomerates to produce crops for the domestic market on rented land overseas.
If there is a serious food shortage, which requires rationing, or even a famine, Xi would need the mother of all distractions — and a small border war with India probably would not cut it.
Chinese military aircraft are on an almost daily basis probing Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Xi might be trying to goad Taiwan into a first strike.
A significant danger point for Taiwan is the US presidential election in November. Due to the extreme polarization of US politics, the result is likely to be bitterly contested.
If the US is thrown into chaos with a protracted court battle to settle the election’s outcome, Xi could view this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve the “Taiwan problem.” With mass protests after the election, the US might in Beijing’s eyes appear historically weak, even on the brink of a civil war.
The US has of course been there before during the mid-1960s and recovered — but there is a real possibility of a miscalculation on Xi’s part.
To top it off, there is a big date coming up: July 31 next year marks the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. With Xi under scrutiny at home for myriad policy failures, he will need something to show for it — and the clock is ticking.
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