Sunday, August 20, 2023

Don't Worry about Food Imports (unless we tell you to)

"There's no need to worry about the increase in imported agricultural products," Chinese State media said earlier this month. The Economic Daily article assured readers that "the expansion of agricultural imports is not a bad thing in itself." It needs to be analyzed, authors said. 

This endorsement of food imports by the Communist Party-run Economic Daily appears to be an Orwellian reversal of food security propaganda. It was posted on dozens of Chinese web sites, a sure sign that it is official Chinese communist party propaganda, not the product of a rogue commentator. 

Economic Daily authors said that "some people" have baseless worries that "China will be controlled by others if it imports food" and that "foreign low-priced agricultural products will impact the domestic industry." To prove their point, Economic Daily authors pointed out that "these situations have never occurred in over 20 years since entering the WTO." They noted that imports are still a very small portion of China's grain supply and assured readers that the State pays great attention to stabilizing the market and protecting farmers' interests. Economic Daily also insisted that imports of ag commodities have not prevented the development of China's food grain and the country must be prepared to compete in international agricultural markets--rhetoric that has never appeared in China food security articles.

Less than 3 months earlier Economic Daily itself was among the "some people" peddling these worries. Two of the phrases they now dismiss appeared in a May 17, 2023 Economic Daily article, "Effectively maintain the security of the food industry" which warned that "[China] could easily be controlled by others" [italics added] if it continues relying on imports of grains. The May article also warned that low-priced imports could pressure the domestic grain market, weaken farmers' production incentives, and shake grain industry security."

The August article also appears to undermine a rhetorical underpinning of Xi Jinping's food security dogma. A similar phrase warning about "being controlled by others" has been quoted dozens of times to explain Xi's food security directive to "keep China's food bowl firmly in our own hands at all times":

"If [supplies of] staple food rely on imports, other people could lead us around by the nose" (如果口粮依赖进口,我们就会被别人牵着鼻子走). 

This phrase was featured in a 2021 article on Xi Jinping's "food security story," and it has appeared as recently as a March 2023 "Seeking Truth" article explaining Xi's food security mandate, in an April 2023 essay on becoming an agricultural powerhouse, and an article last month on the Ministry of Education web site. So Xi Jinping is among the "some people" who worry unnecessarily about food imports. 

Economic Daily cited Chinese customs data that said imports of agricultural products for the first half of 2023 totaled 855.5 billion yuan, up 16.2% from last year. Agricultural imports were more than twice as large as agricultural exports (328.5 billion yuan, up 8.9%) in the first half of 2023. Economic Daily described the faster growth of agricultural imports compared with exports as "a major feature of agricultural trade." 

China customs administration data for 2022--a year plagued by COVID lockdowns--reported agricultural imports for the whole year were valued at $220 billion, up 7.4 percent from 2021.

China's customs administration has now released data showing agricultural imports for January-July valued in Chinese yuan were up 12.8 percent from last year. Data reported in U.S. dollars are roughly the same as last year. (With the Chinese currency falling in value China now has to spend more domestic currency to buy the same amount of imports priced in dollars.) 

According to China customs, soybean imports in July 2023 reached 9.7 million metric tons, up 15% from last July. Soybean imports for the first 7 months of 2023 reached 62.3 million metric tons, up 15% from last year--despite hysterical rhetoric last year instructing farmers to grow more soybeans and claiming that feed mills are reducing soybean meal use in animal feed. China's meat imports for January-July 2023 totaled 4.1 million metric tons, up 9.5% from last year. Edible oil imports for January-July 2023 totaled 2.4 million metric tons, up 119% from last year. Imports of fruits and nuts--discretionary food items--were nearly 5 million metric tons, down 2%.

Economic Daily pointed out that China's status as the largest agricultural importing country means that China is playing an important role in international agricultural markets. Economic Daily explained that moderate imports of grain are part of the national food security policy and that imports of resource-intensive products allow China to conserve land and meet peoples' needs for a good life. 

Economic Daily saves the warnings about dangers of importing food for the end of the article, warning that China's imports are supplied by just a few countries and a handful of multinational grain traders, and the external environment is becoming more and more complex with the exports of some countries facing uncertainties. In extreme cases, the problem of "not being able to buy" must also be considered, the Economic Daily authors warned.

Why the sudden endorsement of food imports? 

Officials may see signs of collapsing food production they're not revealing to the public. This year officials suddenly became much more aggressive in ordering farmers and rural officials to plow up orchards, parks, and mountainsides to plant grain crops; sending out a cadre of rural enforcement teams to make sure the job got done; and arresting grain officials who looted grain reserves. Perhaps now officials have realized the strategy is not going to solve the food problem this year, especially after flooding destroyed an unknown portion of this summer's wheat harvest and flooding from this month's typhoons is damaging fall crops. Seeing a mounting shortage of food this year, officials may have changed course to soften up their rhetoric and get the population used to imports. 

Softening the rhetoric on food imports may be an attempt to head off criticism for failing to keep promises to guarantee the food supply. Officials may see that they are on the brink of losing public support given the flagging economy, alarming statistics on plummeting fertility rates, a youth unemployment crisis and looming financial meltdown. They are likely fearful of the common people pointing to surging food imports as a sign that the regime has lost the "mandate of heaven."


Godfree Roberts said...

This endorsement of food imports by the Communist Party-run Economic Daily appears to be an Orwellian reversal of food security propaganda??

What a bizarre interpretation of Beijing's reassurance! Everyone imports and exports food, for God's sake.

Barbara Nimmo said...

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Ashlee Rolfson said...

I read your blog post with great interest, and I must say, you've raised some important points about the concerns surrounding food imports. It's clear that maintaining a stable and self-sufficient food supply is crucial for any country's security and well-being.
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