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China’s big pig problem

Swine fever is exacerbating the country’s other political crises

China’s big pig problem

Farmer Zhang Shuai stands in a barn at his pig farm in Panggezhuang village in northern China’s Hebei province. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

In a little more than a week, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding. Along with fireworks and a weeklong holiday, the festivities will include a large military parade that state media say will show off the Communist nation’s latest nuclear arsenal.

Yet amid the celebrations, China is experiencing several crises: Protesters plan large demonstrations in Hong Kong as the upheaval there passes the 100-day mark. The U.S.-China trade war is slowing China’s economic growth. The global community is pressuring China over its detention of minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. Perhaps most concerning, an outbreak of African swine fever is killing China’s pigs and has raised the price of pork by nearly 50 percent in the past year.

Pork makes up two-thirds of the country’s meat consumption. With the national holiday coming up on Oct. 1, pork is in especially high demand. Recently China opened its pork reserves, and on Thursday it auctioned 10,000 metric tons of frozen pork. For China’s leadership, fixing the pork shortage is a “national priority.”

While harmless to humans, African swine fever is a highly contagious disease that kills every pig that becomes infected. Currently there is no cure or vaccine. The outbreak began in August 2018, and since then the Chinese government says it has culled 1.2 million pigs to stop the disease’s spread. Authorities have also set up quarantine and travel restrictions in areas where the disease has been found and directed farmers not to feed pigs kitchen waste, according to The New York Times

Yet many believe that large numbers of African swine fever infections have gone unreported, as safety standards are difficult to enforce in China’s millions of small backyard farms. The disease has spread to Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea, and South Korea. In order to keep the virus out of Taiwan, airport customs officials fine visitors up to $32,000 for bringing pork onto the island.

On top of the pig problem, food costs overall have increased by 10 percent in China in the last year. One culprit is the ongoing trade war: China has placed tariffs on agricultural goods from the United States. Tariffs that went into effect on Sept. 1 imposed extra taxes on American products, including pork—but last Friday, state media announced China would exempt American soybeans, pork, and other agricultural products from additional tariffs.

Corn, which makes up almost 8 percent of China’s gross domestic product, is also feeling the blow of African swine fever. With the country’s live pig population falling by 40 percent (according to China’s agriculture ministry), corn demand could fall by 25 percent. That could wipe out at least 23 million metric tons of corn consumption, Lan Renxing, an executive at a major feed producer, told the South China Morning Post. 

Spies for China?

This week the Reuters news service reported that China was behind a cyberattack on the Australian Parliament and the country’s three largest political parties before last May’s elections. Australia’s cyber intelligence agency discovered the attack in March but recommended keeping it secret in order not to hurt trade relations with Beijing. 

In the United States, John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told NPR, “The Chinese are our No. 1 intelligence threat.” He noted that three former U.S. intelligence officers have been convicted or pleaded guilty to spying for China in the past year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has identified multiple additional cases of alleged Chinese economic espionage, according to NPR.