The Challenges China Faces

Although the world pictures China as a behemoth striding towards global economic supremacy, in fact the country has undergone astonishing strains over the past three decades that could have torn it apart and it has in fact made remarkable economic and social progress, according to a new report by the United nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. It faces more challenges as well.

Most of the information in the report is widely known. But the document, by Oliver de Schutter, the special rapporteur, pulls many of China’s challenges together into a single integrated whole, and it makes it easy to see why China’s leaders in Beijing are uneasy about social tensions. The report can be found here. It notes that 144 million people have migrated from the farm to the city over the three decades, a major segment of them employed in the so-called informal sector, with no access to basic services.

In terms of food security, China has made huge strides. The country pulled off a dramatic series of bumper harvests in recent years, with 530.8 million metric tons of grain produced in 2009, a 13.1 percent increase over in 2004 – and following with 546 million tons in 2010, allowing grain self-sufficiency of at least 95 per cent. Grain reserves are estimated to be more than the double of the 17 per cent safety level recommended by the FAO.

Food security benefited significantly from this overall progress, De Schutter writes, but despite the fact that economic reform has lifted hundreds of millions of people out poverty, the gap between rural and urban China continues to grow, with the so-called Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, increasing from 0.329 in 1990 to 0.443 in 2005, even adjusting for rural-urban cost of living differentials, and could be over 0.5 today.

The urban-rural income gap widened from 2.79 to 1 in 2000 to 3.33 to 1 in 2007, the report notes, and if distribution of spending on public services is taken into account, the urban-rural ratio reaches 5-6 to 1. “Because of such increases in inequality, overall progress in food availability coexists with the persistence of food insecurity in certain areas for some groups," De Schutter notes. “In the eastern region, the food output per capita is low but the income level is high and food access is good. In the central region, food supply is relatively sufficient but the income level is lower. The western regions face poorer conditions in all these aspects, and there is a wide gap between urban and rural residents in terms of food consumption structure and nutritional status.”

One major problem is that local governments have insufficient revenues to fulfill all the tasks assigned to them, according to the report. Essential services, including education, health care and old-age pensions, are provided at the local level, with local governments financing 80 percent or more of basic health and education expenditures.

“While levels of subsidies from the central government are significant – fiscal transfers (excluding tax rebates) from the center to local governments increased from 435 billion yuan in 2002 to 2.4 trillion in 2009 – there remains a high inequality in the distribution of medical and health resources. In 2005, only 25 per cent of public health resources were devoted to rural residents, although they make up close to 60 per cent of the total population.”

This is taking place at a time when the shrinking of arable land and massive land degradation threaten the country’s ability to maintain current levels of agricultural production – and at a time when 750 million people still reside in rural areas and rely significantly on agricultural land for their livelihoods.

Since 1997, the report notes, 8.2 million hectares of arable land have been lost to urbanization or industrialization, forest replanting programs and damage caused by natural disasters. In addition, more than a third of the country’s total territory suffers from land degradation, and per capita available land is now 40 percent of the world average, representing a major threat to China’s ability to continue its current self-sufficiency in grains. Although China has 21 percent of the world’s population, it has only 8.5 percent of the world’s arable land and only 6.5 percent of the world’s water reserves. The taking of land for urbanization and industrialization has led to widespread unrest as the disposed take to the streets. The government recorded 127,000 incidents of mass protest in 2009, an indication that the political system is having problems channelling discontent.

Despite these problems, the abandonment of the command economy and rural collectives has led to what De Schutter calls “impressive progress of agricultural production by 200 million small-scale farmers with an average holding of 0.65 hectares,” creating a dramatic transformation since 2005 from being a beneficiary of food aid to being a food aid donor.

De Schutter was invited by the Chinese government to investigate food security from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23, meeting with officials in Beijing and conducting field trips to the districts of Tongzhou and Changping and to Shandong Province. He will present a report on China to the Human Rights Council in 2011.

“The recent food price hikes in the country are a harbinger of what may be lying ahead, and the food reserves maintained by China may therefore prove of strategic importance in the future,” De Schutter writes. “This situation should encourage China to move towards more sustainable types of farming, as experimented successfully in the Yunnan province, if current levels of production are to be sustained.”

Because of the loss of arable land, Beijing’s leaders have decreed that any cultivated land lost for other purposes must be reclaimed elsewhere. The government has set a ‘red line’ at 120 million hectares beyond which arable land will not be allowed to shrink further. But, De Schutter notes, “China is already dangerously close to this limit.”

And, despite scepticism about climate change, particularly in the United States, the Rapporteur forecasts that “Climate change will cause agricultural productivity to drop by 5 to 10 per cent by 2030 in the absence of mitigation actions, and a transition to low carbon agriculture is key in this context.”

The right to food, as described by the UN, has four complementary components. Food security must be achieved at a national level, in order to ensure availability. But food accessibility also needs to be addressed through policies aimed at the areas and populations that are still vulnerable to food insecurity. Adequacy requires that appropriate attention be paid to the nutritional dimensions of the right to food. And the food systems must be sustainable: satisfying current needs should not be at the expense of the country’s ability to meet future needs.

In conclusion, the Special Rapporteur said, he is encouraged by the impressive progress made in China in the achievement of food security. “However, serious challenges remain. These challenges include improving the situation of people living in rural areas and the situation of rural migrant workers, improving security of land tenure and access to land, making a transition towards more sustainable agriculture, and addressing the areas of nutrition and food safety. The government is well aware of these challenges.”