In a sinister reversion to the very worst days of Mao’s rule, Communist Party officials across China are blindly obeying orders to rapidly increase the supply of arable land by any means possible. As with the “Great Leap Forward” that starved tens of millions to death in a futile attempt to produce more steel to industrialise overnight, the official aim is straightforward: to grow more “grain”.
In reality, however, China produces more than enough rice, wheat and maize to feed its human population. So why the sudden rush? Xi Jinping, it seems, is preparing for war.
At present, China relies on colossal imports of soya beans, maize, wheat and other cereals to feed its pigs, cattle, chickens and ducks — more than 120 million metric tons last year. These are supplied by the daily arrival of bulk carriers into Chinese ports from Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the United States. If war were to break out, these imports would quickly dry up.
In China, there is no spare land for crops, leaving Beijing little choice but to uproot the trees recently planted by its costly and much-admired reforestation efforts — even though China’s forests are mostly on slopes, and new crop plantings are often swept away by the first serious rain. Local party officials executing Beijing’s orders know this perfectly well, but disobeying means instant demotion at best.
After the colossal Yangtze River floods of 1998 destroyed 13 million homes, drowned thousands and swept away highways and rail lines, the CCP recognised that the floods had been made worse by uncontrolled deforestation. Orders were issued all across China to stop logging and to plant trees instead, with vast funding allocated to add up to roughly 90 billion trees over the next decade. Thousands of tree nurseries were established, and an army of tree-planters set to work on the bare deforested slopes, with local farmers hired to nurture the new trees. As a result, China became visibly greener in satellite images, as forest cover increased from 12% in 1998 to 24% in 2020 to then increase further — until last year. No figures have been published, but what has happened since greatly exceeds the rate of the Amazon’s deforestation, even though the West’s environmentalists have so far remained entirely silent.
There are no further forests to uproot; all that is left are the very small fruit orchards cultivated by individual farmers. And so, to the horror of the elderly peasants who planted each tree by hand, a local Party official will arrive one day with the People’s Armed Police in camouflage uniforms, and cut them down. Sometimes, this is not enough: many farmers raise ducks in their backyards to supplement their income, which the police then club to death, issuing orders to plant cereals instead. Even room-sized pigsties are destroyed to free up the few square yards of soil underneath.
Local officials know that it is madness to destroy so many livelihoods to produce a few truckloads of cheap cereals, but they have no way of changing Xi’s policies — especially when each official has juniors ready to denounce him in the hope of taking his place. It was this dynamic that produced the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward. Peasants were ordered to melt down their pots and pans to make steel in backyard furnaces, with the promise they would instead eat in the dining rooms of the promised new “communes”; they were also told to melt down their animal ploughs because new tractors were arriving. In a mere four years from 1958 to 1962, at least 30 million died of hunger — some to be eaten by those who survived — and hardly any usable steel was produced.
Now, there is no question that China has very little arable land, having lost some 4 million acres to urbanisation and industry between 1957 and 1996 — an average loss of 100,000 acres per year, which jumped to more than 1.5 million acres per year from 1997, with China’s explosive economic growth that followed the opening of the US and world markets. As a result, China now has less arable land per inhabitant than India.
But why should this matter? As a very successful exporter of increasingly advanced and costly manufactures, China can certainly pay for all its food and animal feed imports easily enough. And this is how we arrive at something much worse than the destruction of China’s new forests and the human tragedy of its destroying orchards and ducks: the reason for it all.
The crescendo of Xi Jinping’s “rice bowl” speeches came on 21 June, when he claimed it was imperative to prepare for “extreme circumstances”, having previously warned on 6 May that China must be prepared “for worst-case and extreme scenarios” to survive “high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms” — all transparent codewords for “the danger of war”. He returned to the topic on 6 July when, on a visit to the Eastern Theater Command, whose jurisdiction includes the Strait of Taiwan, he called for increased “training under real combat conditions to raise the capability to fight and win”.
Xi’s incessant calls for “combat readiness” may mean that he actually doubts that Chinese military forces are ready for real combat. Its navy, after all, is brand new and inexperienced, while the air force is greatly inferior in its technology, mostly relying on Soviet jet engines, radar-evading “stealth” that is not really stealthy, and inferior missiles. But more importantly, Xi’s intense bellicosity and intense calls for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese people” suggests motives that we cannot even imagine. No, not Taiwan, which China could have had for the asking by merely treating Hong Kong’s freedoms with demonstrative respect, making “one country, two systems” very attractive to the Taiwanese.
Much more likely is his personal sense of shame that China’s history is a long sequence of defeats at the hands of badly outnumbered invaders — the Turkic, Mongol and Manchurian Jurchen tribespeople, and then the Japanese who might still be there if they had not attacked the US. As with Mussolini, then, Xi’s real aim may well be to turn his unwarlike people into warriors.
So far, China’s future war might appear to be all talk, but preparations are well underway. Already, catastrophic deforestation is harming all humanity while the destruction of orchards and the mass killings of ducks are impoverishing tens of millions. That is not just talk.