Food crisis in Xi Jinping’s China brings back memory of Mao era famine

SChina observers are unanimous on one point; under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is going back to the days of Mao Zedong of extreme communism. And with this is coming back the days of food shortage; the memory of the famine in Mao’s era, between 1958 and 1961, that had taken a toll of nearly 50 million human lives. As Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has analysed in his study of the great famine of China, in Mao’s era, in the absence of a free flow of information, leaders of the Communist Party of China did not have the information that the vast number of agricultural communes and co-operatives had failed to produce enough grain. The era of Xi Jinping has been marked by over-centralization; concentration of power in one hand. In an era when the role of social media is extremely important in maintaining the flow of information, the authorities have cracked down on social media posts highlighting the food crisis facing China in the wake of the pandemic; removing videos and comments that are appearing in various social media platforms; making them simply not available. While the food shortage in Shanghai, a metropolitan of 28 million people, in the early part of 2022 in the wake of a strict lockdown because of Covid – 19 cases has drawn a lot of attention, reports say that there are similar situations in other cities like Xi’an and in many rural areas as well.

The situation in Shanghai

Videos have emerged of people in Shanghai, unable to get out to procure food, screaming from the balconies of their apartments. As social media has started exposing the horrors of a draconian lockdown and the high-handed behaviour of the authorities, there is a clampdown on social media posts. Compared to previous lockdowns, maintaining supply chains and food deliveries, either as commercial operation or through packages provided by the government, have been a disaster. There are videos of people jostling to grab a packet of food being distributed by government agencies. Photos have emerged of empty supermarket shelves. To order online, one has to get up at ungodly hours, otherwise booking of orders would be suspended. Some people are even scavenging for food, leading to food poisoning. The outrage over the situation is pouring in the social media, but many of these posts appearing in Sina Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China, have been removed or censored. Weibo users are using other hashtags like the Shanghai epidemic. Hashtags like buying groceries in Shanghai have been blocked.

Zero-Covid policy

Xi’an, a city of 12 million people, is facing a food shortage since the beginning of 2022 because of a lockdown. Draconian measures were taken to curb Covid – 19 to ensure that the Winter Olympics in Beijing did not go awry. Photos have emerged of desperate people exchanging dishwashing liquids and sanitary pads for little packets of food. A video of pandemic prevention workers beating a man for leaving his apartment to buy food, and steamed buns falling from his bag, has created an uproar in the social media. The food crisis in the cities may be the result of poor management, with truck operators carrying food items being prevented from entering cities to keep them isolated; but a report in Financial Times reveals that the extension of similar draconian measures in rural areas in some of the provinces considered the granary of China will perpetuate the food crisis in the coming months. In the north-eastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, many farmers have been left with inadequate agricultural inputs at the beginning of the sowing season as the authorities have sealed the villages to fight the pandemic. With these provinces accounting for 20 per cent of the corn production in China, a drop in the production of rice and corn that are planted in spring will defeat the aim of China to attain self-sufficiency in staple food and import of food would have to be increased. While the lockdown in Shanghai and the consequent food crisis have attracted more international attention, one-third of the farmers in Jilin do not have enough fertilizer stock at the beginning of the sowing season because of ban on traffic movement and shut down of business; the result of China’s uncompromising zero-Covid policy. The FT report quotes an advisor to the government of China that the country is facing the risk of shortage of food particularly because the fertilizer supply is behind schedule. The situation is alarming because China is already a country of food shortage, with increased dependence on import of food; with a mounting food trade deficit for Beijing, says the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Food import

Between 2003 and 2017, the food import of China has increased from $14 billion to $104.7 billion, while food export increased from $20.2 billion to $59.6 billion. The Covid-induced disruption has aggravated an already serious situation facing China on the food front. The race to industrialize has left it with a lop-sided development, with a shortage of arable land. It is estimated that since 1959 at least 20 percent of the arable land of China has been lost to industries. Only about 10 percent of land in China is arable, as against 20 percent for the USA. As a result, 20 percent of the population of the world have at their disposal seven percent of the total arable land in the world. Arable land available per person is 0.21 acre in China, as against 1.16 acres in the case of the USA. Poor environment management has led to pollution in groundwater in China; over 15 percent of the ground water is unsuitable for any use. In Henan province, farming has been prohibited on 8 million acres because of soil contamination. The reality of a food shortage in China is so serious that in August 2020 President Xi Jinping introduced “Operation Clean Plate” under which diners in restaurants must eat all they have ordered and leave the plate empty to avoid wastage of food; they would be fined if they wasted food.

There are reports of China trying to grab land in Argentina and Columbia, purchasing arable land to produce food to send them back home. Food shortage or not, China cannot afford to waver from the draconian lock-down norms as it is a politically crucial year for the President of China, Xi Jinping, who, having obtained a third term in power. To ensure that no challenge to his leadership emerges, stability is on the top of the agenda; and there is no chance of a relaxation from the zero- Covid policy. An advisory from the top to the people of China in the beginning of 2022 that they must stock up on essentials has added to the mad rush to grab food items. As China observers have pointed out, the era of Xi Jinping has been marked by total centralization of power with the President; more than in the era of Mao Zedong.

Now that Xi Jinping has made it his motto to make China the strongest superpower in the world, the same mistakes are also being repeated as in the Mao Zedong era when main cause of the famine was an ill-conceived effort, executed with insufficient means, to catch up with Britain in industrialization. The view among distinguished China observers is that Xi Jinping has reversed the economic policies followed by his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao; policies which had made China prosperous. Attempts by Xi Jinping to pursue Mao – era policies in the 21st century would not work, however.