Watch Out: China Cannot Feed Itself | Opinion

Consider U.S. farmers happy. They are exporting record volumes of products to China. Shipments of soybeans, corn and pork are bringing smiles back to the American heartland.

Or, to put this another way, Beijing is effectively acknowledging it cannot feed the Chinese people.

China's leader, Xi Jinping, recently made such an admission. Last August, he announced what became known as the "clean your plate" campaign to end what he called a "shocking and distressing" waste of food. Just about everyone saw this effort, to get the Chinese people to eat less, as a warning of food shortages to come.

Chinese officials will not formally admit China is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign food—that would be political dynamite—but it is now apparent that the country needs to buy foodstuffs from abroad.

We start in 2019, which according to Beijing was a very good year on the food front. The official Xinhua News Agency, in a piece titled "China's Food Self-Sufficiency a Blessing To World," claimed in October that China was producing far more food than it needed. The country, Xinhua reported, contained 20 percent of the global population and produced a quarter of its food. Moreover, Beijing felt it was time to brag, noting China had been able to accomplish this feat with only 9 percent of the world's farmland and 6 percent of its freshwater.

Xinhua in 2019 was exaggerating, and that became clear in 2020, an especially difficult year for Chinese agriculture. Floods in the country's south, drought in the north, typhoons in the northeast and pest infestations in the southwest took their tolls. Disease continued to spread among animals across China.

Perhaps most damaging were the floods. Floods in the middle and lower Yangtze River basin—Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi and Jiangsu provinces—from June hit rice-growing regions. Floods in Jilin and Heilongjiang in the fall affected the corn and Japonica rice crops. The corn belt in the northeast was devastated by typhoons.

Beginning in 2018 and continuing in 2020, African swine fever also ripped through pork-eating China. Paul Midler, the author of Poorly Made in China, makes the case in comments to Newsweek that Beijing in 2020 slaughtered a considerable portion of its pig population in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19—not to stop African swine fever, as Chinese officials maintain. Whatever the reason, it is clear, Midler points out, that China lost much of its supply of this food staple during the global pandemic.

Whatever the reason, disease and culls claimed more than half the country's pigs from 2018 to last year.

China's agriculture is also afflicted by long-term trends. As the country develops, it loses farmland to factories, for instance.

Chinese farmer in 2015
Chinese farmer in 2015 Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images

Moreover, misguided policies are leading to severe water shortages. The Yangtze River, cradling 460 million people, is drying up, and more than 1,000 lakes along its 3,900 miles have disappeared. Its water level, according to a recent study, has fallen 0.8 inches every five years since the 1980s, but that sounds like an underestimation. Chinese officials siphon off the Yangtze's water with their massive South-to-North Water Diversion project. More than half of Beijing's water comes from that river. To protect the waterway, fishing has been banned for a decade.

Scarcity is not the only water problem. Up to 80 percent of China's water is polluted. "What lands are suitable to grow foods are producing far too little of it, and much of the food is produced from a polluted soil and water base," Gregory Copley, the president of the International Strategic Studies Association, told Newsweek.

Finally, if all this were not bad enough, an affluent population is demanding high-value protein foods—chiefly beef, pork, poultry and lamb. This requires more water and far more agricultural production. "It seems the Communist Party itself doesn't think it will have enough land or water to produce not just the human food, but also the animal feed it will need," Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me.

The net result? China is now the world's largest importer of food.

And it will have to import even more in coming years. Analysts project that China's food self-sufficiency will drop to around 91 percent by 2025, down from 94.5 percent in 2015.

"The essential strategic basic characteristic of every enduring great power is its ability to feed itself, to be a net exporter of food," said Copley, also the editor-in-chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy. "It is difficult to see how China can remediate its soils and its food production—or deliver enough potable water—to meet demands any time in the coming decade, even with a declining population."

Paskal thinks China, to solve its food problem, will continue to buy farmland in Africa, Canada and around the world, but it is also possible that Xi will try more aggressive measures to ensure food self-sufficiency.

Henry Kissinger often—and correctly—reminds us how Chinese leaders are devoted students of history and devise current strategies from successful ones in the past. Xi Jinping, therefore, may believe he will need to annex land to give the Chinese state a more secure hold on agricultural areas before going on to achieve his grand territorial ambitions. Annexation, after all, is how the Qin, during the Warring States period of the fifth to third century B.C., succeeded in conquering others. It first grabbed land from small neighbors to assure food supply in order to sustain its successful campaigns against the larger kingdoms to "unite China."

Xi cannot be happy that China is increasingly dependent on a nation he has identified as his enemy, the United States, to feed its 1.4 billion people. There are, consequently, bound to be geopolitical tremors when a China led by an insecure and militant regime decides it needs to obtain self-sufficiency in food.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.