The Minister assured the journalists that China is a good friend to Africa and hopes for even more cooperation in agriculture. His answer focused on China's technical aid to Africa: opening rice-growing demonstration centers in Africa, sending numerous technicians to Africa, and training thousands of African technicians and officials in China. He celebrated China's success in addressing its food security problems and noted that Africa still has a food security problem.
China's Ag Minister said he was eager to share China's rural development experience, but he was vague and equivocal on exactly what advice or guidance China could give to African countries. His response boiled down to an admission that China has no transferable formula for agricultural development. China's experience is peculiar to its own circumstances.
If they were listening to the rest of the press conference, the African journalists might have deduced that China's approach to agricultural development has resulted in huge, festering problems that the leadership is now trying to correct: high production costs, low productivity, backward technology, environmental devastation, a food safety crisis, and "hollow villages" composed of empty houses.
The main focus of the Minister's press conference last week was a giant "rural revitalization" experiment aimed at dealing with the above problems and stimulating growth in agriculture, the one sector of China's economy that is lagging behind and stagnant--the so-called "short board"--starved of investment for decades.
The Minister did not mention the slogan "cities like Europe, countryside like Africa" that many Chinese people have used to describe the neglected countryside. Turning dilapidated, trash-strewn villages into a "beautiful countryside" is now one of the pillars of China's rural revitalization.
The Minister did not mention that China's experience shows that technology is less important in developing a strong agricultural sector than are institutions such as land ownership, administrative structures, laws clarifying and protecting property rights, controls on marketing and prices, and the incentives they create.
Beginning in the 1950s, China's farm output stagnated or declined every time leaders tried to force peasants into farming collectives. Agriculture revived every time officials tolerated private plots, individual livestock-raising, and free markets. China's agricultural output finally took off after 1978 when land was contracted out to individual families.
China's Minister of Agriculture did not mention that Chinese agricultural output likewise suffered each time Chinese leaders tried to monopolize purchases of grain, shut down free markets, and set low prices to extract funds from farmers. China's farm production only began to show sustained growth when free markets were reintroduced for good and prices were liberalized. Chinese communists have embraced the doctrine of the market playing a decisive role in resource allocation in their agricultural strategy.
A major subject of the Minister's press conference last week was discussion of how to dispose of a huge glut of grain created by another attempt at government price-setting. This took the form of minimum prices and "temporary reserves" that pushed Chinese grain, cotton, and soybean prices out of kilter with world prices during the most recent decade and resulted in huge expense, wasteful accumulation of massive grain reserves and record imports of grain.
The Minister dismissed an African reporter's query about reports of "plastic rice" (bits of pvc plastic mixed with rice) and how the safety of rice exports to Africa can be assured. China's search for a means of guaranteeing food safety and upgrading the poor quality of its food is another preoccupation of the current "rural revitalization" initiative. For decades, China's rural system rewarded only increases in physical output and numerical targets, which induced farmers to maximize output without regard to quality. Cleaning up poisonous "cadmium rice" was one of the projects mentioned in the press conference.
Neither did the Minister discuss the devastating impacts of subsidizing chemical fertilizer, plastic sheeting, pumping water from underground aquifers at minimal cost, indiscriminate use of pesticides and animal antibiotics, neglecting soil fertility and ignoring disposal of animal manure and other wastes. "Green" development is another core idea of China's rural revitalization to reverse the dire consequences of vague property rights that allow producers to ignore the costs their production imposes on other members of society and future generations.