Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a grain research institute in Jilin, known as the granary of the nation. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing’s “save food” imperative since this summer has seen caterers across the nation trim the options on their menus and hotels cancel buffets, with a number of provinces and municipalities passing by-laws to penalize diners who leave large amounts of food behind.   

Local Communist Party cadres have been told to forego their usual, lavish drinking and eating binges, and instead focus on naming and shaming voracious eaters who order an excessive number of dishes when they dine out.

Many government bureaus and public schools that operate subsidized canteens have imposed a de facto rationing scheme to stop people from ordering copious quantities of food that may end up in landfills. Some have gone so far as to ask civil servants and students to upload photos of their empty dishes after each meal to a dedicated online platform as proof that they have finished all of their food.  

Yet purveyors, gourmandizers and those who simply want a droolworthy meal to lift their spirits and fortify their bodies against the coronavirus are wondering what the real rationale is behind Chinese President Xi Jinping’s eat-less-and-waste-no-more edict, which was issued in August when domestic demand was being unleashed to resurrect the coronavirus-battered economy. 

A month earlier, Xi inspected the northeastern province of Jilin, known as the granary of the nation, where in a cornfield he highlighted the importance of food security. 

State media outlets have been told to relay the president’s latest directives on food, leaving many guessing if Xi has pivoted away from the fight against the plague. This sparked fears over a possible return to the kind of subsistence living associated with the Mao Zedong era.

Xi’s focus on food security has made many wonder about the rationale behind the “save food” drive. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing’s shift is surprisingly abrupt given that in October 2019, the Chinese State Council stated in a white paper on the country’s food supply that “China has never been more self-sufficient and that staple food production, storage and supply are all absolutely secure.”

The Agriculture Ministry also assured the people in the first half that farmers could still expect a bumper harvest in 2020 despite the pandemic. 

Yet that optimism has been replaced by a rare admission of mounting challenges. The National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration revealed in June in an article syndicated by the People’s Daily that Covid-19 had hampered the movement of China’s food and that it had become challenging to source supplies from overseas as more countries scrambled to impose export bans.

The article added that the already “tight balance” between demand and supply since 2019 had been compounded when agricultural production suffered collateral damage from the health crisis and the panicked masses rushed to stockpile food. 

July and August’s devastating deluge along the entire Yangtze River basin has also swamped large swathes of cropland in key western and southern agrarian provinces like Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangxi and Anhui, wiping out much of the autumn harvest of corn and soybeans in numerous counties. Subsequently, China’s pork and beef retail prices have surged 15-20% since this year amid a fodder supply shortage. 

The State Flood Control and Drought Relief Commission said in August that 60 million hectares of farmland had been partially drenched in the several rounds of overflowing in the Yangtze and its tributaries, and among them, 11.4 million hectares would see total crop failure with no grains to reap. 

There have been reports about locust plagues and fall armyworm infestations hitting northeastern and northwestern provinces, with fields being stripped bare. 

Worse still, there have also been cases in which corrupt cadres falsified records concerning the quantity of grain and other staple foods stored in the many national strategic food reserve facilities they supervise.

Beijing is coming down hard on officials responsible for food production and warehousing who fail to implement new food security policies, after the revelation of an inside job scandal in which 400 tons of rice was sold illegally from a key barn meant to ensure there was a reserve food supply for the 22 million residents of Beijing. 

Some Chinese, in the meantime, wonder if the latest call to save food has anything to do with the unpalatable prospect of a looming war, now that the risk of a military stand-off or even conflict with Taiwan and the United States is writ large.

Some still have vivid memories of Mao mandating people to hoard grain and prepare for the eventuality of war in the 1960s, when China’s camaraderie with the Soviet Union become fraught with rifts. 

They say in any worst-case war scenario, Beijing must ensure there is a basic food reserve to feed its people and soldiers if external supplies cannot be obtained. 

Hu Xingdou, a famed economist and professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told reporters that pneumonia, flooding and the adversarial reset of Beijing’s ties with the US and the rest of the West could be a “triple whammy” straining Beijing’s tight and sometimes fragile overseas food supply chain. 

“Beijing’s trade surplus is fast depleting amid the trade tension and may have fewer foreign exchange available to buy food from abroad, when many exporters have already turned away buyers to prioritize domestic supply,” said Hu. 

While it has a self-sufficiency rate of 80%, according to the Agriculture Ministry, the world’s most populous country imported more food than any other nation in 2019.

A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has also cautioned against the prevalent culture of carousing and feasting. In 2025 the country of 1.4 billion will have to plug a shortfall of 130 million tons of food, especially corn, though wheat and rice production could be steadily ramped up in the next 15 years.

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