Xi Jinping’s Strategy for Enhancing China’s Food Security

China, with a population of 1.4 billion, has a massive demand for food, and ensuring food security has become the top priority of the government, particularly as the country emerges from the Covid lockdown. In its much-anticipated No 1 Document for 2023, the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party emphasized the importance of addressing the challenges posed by a growing population and prioritizing food security.

According to official statistics, the Chinese consume an enormous quantity of food annually, including 700,000 tons of grain, 98,000 tons of edible oil, 1.92 million tons of vegetables, and 230,000 tons of meat.

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are acutely aware that ensuring food security is critical to maintaining their grip on power, particularly in the wake of the devastating famines that occurred during the Maoist era. In the past, Chinese citizens were required to use coupons to purchase food, a practice that was not fully phased out until 1995, although it had become obsolete in urban areas by the late 1980s.

However, in recent decades, especially since Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2013, the country’s No 1 Central Document has consistently focused on the issues of food security, agriculture, the countryside, and farmers.

Xi Jinping’s first policy statement as China’s top leader was the No 1 document in 2013, which outlined his plan to improve China’s food security. Central to this plan was the goal of ensuring a national food supply to enhance food self-sufficiency. The document also called for a strong supervision system to improve food safety, and it emphasized the importance of implementing a stringent farmland protection system to promote high-standard farmland development.

Xi’s strategy is practical because China’s political system is vulnerable to food insecurity. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted this vulnerability, as disruptions in the food supply and lockdown-induced food shortages led to public grievances and protests in more than a dozen cities, with citizens demanding food.

Xi emphasized that China’s growing reliance on imported food poses a national security concern, despite the fact that China has been able to feed its 1.4 billion population so far. Since taking office, Xi has stressed the need to increase domestic supply and achieve self-sufficiency to safeguard national food security. At the Central Economic Work Conference in December 2022, he underscored the importance of strengthening China’s capacity to ensure food security and self-sufficiency.

In recent years, China has experienced significant farmland loss and degradation. The latest land use survey indicated that China’s total arable land decreased from 334 million acres in 2013 to 316 million acres in 2019, a loss of more than five percent in just six years. Shockingly, more than one-third of China’s remaining arable land (660 million mu) suffers from degradation, acidification, and salinization. The annual decrease of arable land has also increased significantly, from about 6 million mu from 1957 to 1996 to more than 11 million mu from 2009 to 2019.

The primary cause of farmland deterioration is the land-intensive industrialization and urbanization of the past three decades. To support the expansion of manufacturing, infrastructure, and urban development, farmland has been expropriated, and competing interests for land use have led to the loss of arable land for more profitable development projects. Grain accounts for 70 percent of the total arable land, while the rest is used for growing cash crops, gardens, forestry, or left fallow.

Research predicts that by the time China achieves an urbanization rate of 70 percent by 2030, the country is likely to lose about 20 million mu of high-quality arable land. In response, the government has set criteria for high-quality farmland for different Chinese regions to develop 1.2 billion mu of high-quality farmland by 2030, with an annual investment of at least 75 billion yuan for 2023-2030.

However, implementing restrictive farmland protection policies will inevitably reduce local governments’ fiscal capacity because revenue from land-use-right sales constitutes the majority of local government revenue. Local governments’ land-related income fell for the first time in six years in 2022, primarily due to declined revenue from land-use-right sales. Moreover, the government must increase farmland protection expenditure without increasing debt, which is a challenge given the state’s and citizens’ financial pressures.

Currently, the government’s priority is to boost economic recovery by encouraging people to increase their consumption.

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