Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet

by Lester R. Brown
Norton, 163 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its importance to the rest of the world.

Even those with more than an incidental interest in China are justifiably confused about the topic. Their understanding has been shaped by writers whose widely publicized works give oddly different versions of Chinese peasant life. Some may remember Franklin King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, a book that praised the virtues of China’s traditional organic agriculture. Then at least two generations of Americans became acquainted with the hardships of a prototypical peasant family in Pearl Buck’s best seller The Good Earth, which is filled with descriptions of backbreaking labor and rough, garlic-flavored gruels.

In the early 1970s, after two decades of suspended Sino-American ties, the first wave of American visitors to China brought back uplifting reports of plentiful harvests, with photographs of well-nourished, rosy-cheeked children gathered in communal kindergartens under the obligatory portraits of the Great Helmsman. These travelers did not suspect that beyond the rehearsed dances in show communes was a countryside the size of a continent in which tens of millions of peasants were almost starving. Nor did they suspect that only a dozen years before their visit, Mao’s lunatic Great Leap had plunged China into the greatest famine in human history. Some thirty million people died in three years.

The blindness of those reports, and the falsity of countless official statements about an ever better state of farming in China, were exposed by Deng Xiaoping’s radical rural reforms. His efforts to abolish communal farms began gingerly in 1979 and gained momentum rapidly during the early 1980s. There would not have been any need to abandon the practice of communal farming had it been as rewarding as portrayed by Communist Party communiqués and by underinformed Western visitors.

In fact, even with strict food rationing, a quarter century of collective farming resulted in a system that could produce barely enough food to provide China’s people with no more than a subsistence-level diet, based on low-quality rice and other staples. And for at least 100 million peasants, it did not provide even the necessary minimum.

Under the privatization program that began in 1980, the land still belonged to the state, but the peasants were free to plant crops and to breed animals more or less as they wished. Within five years China’s per capita supply of calories amounted to nearly 90 percent of that of Japan. Moreover, this rise was accompanied by impressive gains in quality. Rice became whiter, which is much preferred in China; traditionally rare delicacies ranging from fat ducks to fragrant ginger became commonplace; pork was no longer eaten only on a few festive days; and newly dug ponds began filling with carp.

When food rationing was eventually abolished, the Chinese press …

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