A Shot Heard ‘Round China

China is notoriously loathe to listen to American advice on its domestic and foreign policy, but when Lester R. Brown’s Worldwatch Institute released a slim volume called Who Will Feed China? in 1995, alarm bells rang out all over the world’s most populous country. To counter the contention that China would eventually need to import massive quantities of grain, the Chinese government held a press conference in Beijing, adamantly asserting that “the Chinese people will feed themselves.”

All the leaders of China today are survivors of the massive famine that occurred between 1959 and 1961 in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward-a famine that claimed a staggering 30 million lives. The national psyche of China has clearly been affected by this devastating famine, and any hint that it might be defeated was bound to bring rigorous denials.

Ironically, late in 1995, the food situation did tighten inside China; within months, the country, with a population of 1.2 billion, went from being a grain exporter to being the world’s second-largest grain importer, trailing only Japan. Soon, the strident tone coming out of China began to change. The state of China’s agriculture became a major focus of the communist leaders as they acknowledged that China was “facing a looming grain crisis, with a hike in imports the only apparent solution to the demands of a growing population on a shrinking farmland base.” In short order, the Agricultural Development Bank of China doubled its loans to help improve agricultural output.

The growing realization of China’s situation led to a massive reassessment. According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, “[Lester R. Brown’s] arguments have caused near panic in the highest levels of the Communist Party, and the government has responded by holding seminars and issuing defiant rebuttals. ‘He has had a very big effect because grain is so important in China. It has forced the government to devote more investment to agriculture,’ admitted Lei Xilu, a State Planning Commission agronomist. He added, “In the past 40 years, few other foreigners have managed to shake the confidence of China’s rulers as Brown has.”

In addition to its effect on China, Brown’s book spawned hundreds of seminars, conferences, meetings and studies worldwide, including recognition at a Harvard University conference entitled, “Feeding China: Today and Into the 21st Century” for “moving the food/population issue back towards center stage.”