Seeds of doubt

Jilin fire raises old questions about grain supply


In 1735 the Emperor Qianlong ordered an audit of his grain reserves. One of his largest granaries then burned to the ground before his audit team could visit. The intrigue surrounding the fire was so rich that it became the subject of a 2002 soap opera on state television entitled World Granary. Historians have blamed corrupt officials for the fire, saying it was arranged to obscure the theft of grain inside.

Netizens were talking about this episode once again this month after a fire at another granary in Jilin, in China’s northeast. “What happened in the Qing Dynasty occurs again and again in our era,” was one popular comment.

The reference here was to another granary fire – again in the northeast – in Heilongjiang in 2013. It happened just four days after authorities had ordered an inspection team to look into allegations of administrative irregularities, triggering speculation that the blaze was started on purpose.

The blaze in 2013 lasted for 20 hours and engulfed 78 barns operated by state-backed Sinograin.

As key-opinion-leader (KOL) writer Caimei Qianpu pointed out last week: all of Sinograin’s surveillance cameras mysteriously failed before the fire started in Heilongjiang. Caimei added that a subsequent investigation by state broadcaster CCTV found that granaries in the region were had replaced good grain with lower-quality stock, with officials pocketing the difference in value.

So there was a sense of déjà vu when the Jilin granary fire broke out at the end of July, destroying at least 580 tonnes of grain.

No cause for the inferno has been given by barn operator China Co-op Group, though again there are some odd circumstances. First, that the fire department in the city of Baicheng said its telephone line wasn’t operational at the time of the blaze (a cable had apparently been cut). Second, that on July 23 the State Council issued orders for a round of grain store inspections in the second half of the year.

The China Times points out that granary executives say that Jilin wasn’t among the 10 provinces targeted by the State Council for the first wave of checks. And in the absence of a definitive verdict on the reasons for the fire, blogger Caimei has conconcentrated on highlighting a broader point: the gradual erosion of China’s food security.

He points out that as of July 25 the country’s granaries had purchased 34 million tonnes of grain, a year-on-year drop of about 35%.

National Bureau of Statistics figures also show that grain grown in China this summer amounted to 139 million tonnes, or 2.2% less than in 2017.

On the flipside, as less grain is grown at home grain imports have surged. Caimei says that grain imports surged 14% in 2017 to 130.6 million tonnes. The twin causes: rising dietary demands and the declining acreage of arable land, says the writer.

“China’s grain output is declining, the domestic food gap is growing, and dependence on food imports is extremely high,” he observes.

Caimei points out that many local governments, in cahoots with real estate developers, have been seizing farmland and selling it over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the central government in Beijing seems to have shifted from some of its own food security targets. In 2006 a law was drafted at the National People’s Congress stipulating that total arable land could not fall below 1.8 billion mu, which was described as a ‘red line’ commitment – essential to ensure that the nation could feed itself and avoid a food crisis.

However, Caimei cites data that China’s grain-sown area had fallen to 1.68 billion mu (about 112,000 hectares) last year, breaching the levels that were previously seen as sacrosanct.

“This year the Ministry of Land and Resources issued the ‘Notice on the Comprehensive Implementation of Special Protection for Permanent Basic Farmland’, which stated that the national permanent basic farmland protection area in 2020 should be no less than 1.546 billion mu. Obviously, the red line of 1.8 billion mu of cultivated land existed in name only,” he concludes.

With these declining yields, it’s no wonder that so many Chinese are so curious about how much decent grain is really residing in the country’s granaries…

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.