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How Old Fears Of Famine Keep China's One-Child Policy Alive

Food shortages are almost always a problem of supply, not demand, but don't tell that to some top Chinese officials maintaining a tight grip on national family planning policy.

Food security was a major reason for China's one-child policy
Food security was a major reason for China's one-child policy
Huang Wenzheng and James Liang

The review of China's one-child-per-family policy was one of the hottest issues at the recent National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Opponents of loosening China's birth control policy worry that there is not enough arable land and food to cope with the demographic change that it would bring.

Food is a livelihood issue so China has always had worry about a shortage of arable land. China uses 7% of the world's farmland to feed 19.5% of the global population. This is a story the Chinese people have known well throughout history.

However, different places have different food production conditions. For instance, with less than 3% of India's farmland, the Punjab produces 19.5% of that nation's wheat, 10.3% of cotton and 11% of the rice.

China is located in both temperate and sub-tropical zones with relatively fertile land. It has in fact much room to improve its food production even at a conservative estimate according to a recent study entitled "The comprehensive production capacity of China's agricultural resources and population-carrying capacity."

In the long term, here are the numbers: China's annual food production will surpass 700 million tons, more than a 19% growth relative to the 590 millions tons in 2012. Meanwhile, if China is to fully liberalize childbearing, and if its birth rate is maintained above 2%, China's future population peak will still not surpass 1.45 billion, which is less than an 8% increase on today's 1.35 billion.

The primary motor of food production growth is demand. In line with the demographic increase, the food supply continues to grow. According to UN data, every country's arable land yield is on the rise. China's output is still only 85% of that of fully developed countries.

Perhaps due to slowing pressure of demand, China's investment in agricultural technology is only equivalent to the level of low-income countries of the 1980s. Whereas progress in agricultural technology contributes between 70-80% of agricultural growth in the developed world, it is only 45% in China. All this goes to show that there's plenty of room for growth in China's food output.

According to the classification of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural land includes farm land, gardens and grassland. China has the world's largest amount of agricultural land - twice the size of Brazil and Russia, three times that of India. Its per capita agricultural land area is much greater than the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Southeast Asian countries. China's grassland area is four times its arable land area whereas the world average is only 1.5 times. Rich grass land provides a good foundation for China to develop grassland agriculture to raise the level of its diet and to ensure food safety.

Others worry that urbanization will eat away at the supply of arable land. This too is a groundless fear. As a matter of fact, cities cover much less surface than what people imagine. According to the China City Statistical Yearbook of 2011, the total constructed area of China's mid to large-sized cities is 30,000 square kilometers, which is 0.3% of the national surface, and equivalent of 2.4 % of its cultivated land. Even if China were to double the size of its existing urban areas, this would still have limited impact on its total farm land.

All in all, China has sufficient arable land and food production capacity to respond to any demographic changes caused by childbearing liberalization. Food security crises, in the end, come from a supply shortage rather than a change in demand. Even with an ultra-high birth rate, a natural population growth is a few percent a year. If the supply remains unchanged, a few percent more demand will not cause starvation.

Famines are almost always caused by a sudden reduction in supply, which can often be related to poor information, inaccessible transportation or mismanagement. Since the 1970s, with the improvement of communications and transport, the world’s big famines have mostly occurred in remote, sparsely populated or relatively closed areas. China is vast and has diverse climates. It’s well equipped to guarantee the stability of its food supply. 

China attaches great importance to food security. Its food self-sufficiency rate has stabilized at around 90%, and for grain it’s more than 95%. China’s food reserve is more than 30% of its annual consumption, which amounts to twice the world average. This is a lot higher than the safety line of 18% recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.


Still, even if it won't necessarily increase the risk of outright famine, it is true that China's massive population may drive down the per capita food consumption and result in chronic under-nutrition. This was one of the major reasons advocated for the one-child policy originally. However, China's per capita food production continues to grow at a steady rate.

There is, however, a bona fide food security issue that China must face in the future. It is not linked to any supposed shortage in arable land, nor a growing population. Instead, as Chinese society gets more wealthy, it will push up the opportunity cost of agricultural production; that is, the increase in revenue of other industries will lead to the increase in the cost of the labor force engaged in agricultural production. This, in turn, will push up agricultural product prices -- and could spark a market failure in the food production business.

The solution is to raise China’s agricultural output efficiency, and provide agriculture subsidies according to need. Moreover, China’s food supply will depend more and more on the international market.

Ultimately, reducing the population cannot bring food security. Unless efforts are made to enhance the technical level of agricultural output, the comparative advantages of production will not necessarily be achieved. China's advantage is not in agriculture, but in manufacturing. To continue to limit people’s fertility instead of allowing an immediate and full liberalization of childbearing is a choke-hold that smothers the true potential of China's future.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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