As we start to look at the onset of scarcity, all sorts of second and third order consequences start to emerge. One such consequence is how the impact of food scarcity could undermine the authority of the Chinese Government.
The model is quite simple. A combination of globalisation and a fixed exchange rate have allowed China to develop into a manufacturing powerhouse on a global scale. This has raised millions of Chinese families out of poverty (60 million families a year – that’s a huge number). As incomes have risen, so have dietary expectations. Chinese families expect to eat more regularly, with more food, and with a higher protein content than they have in the past. All of this puts pressure on global food markets.
However, China is also a poor nation, a feature of which being that expenditure on food is a high percentage of household disposable income. As food prices rise, they have a more immediate effect on households than they would, say, in ‘Western’ economies. This is the basis for discontent, which may lead to unrest. The last time food prices rose quickly, there were outbreaks of unrest in Tibet and Xin-Jiang provinces, as the rising cost of food exacerbated an existing set of grievances.
One way in which the Chinese government could reduce the impact of rising food prices could be to allow the Yuan to rise faster than it is currently rising against other currencies. However, this policy has the risk of slowing China’s export growth, which has been the basis for prosperity so far. It would also mark a shift in China’s commercial policy away from export-led growth and towards domestic consumption-led growth, a potentially destabilising feature within the Chinese economy.
That none of this has happened suggests that the growth of Chinese exports will remain strong, that inflation will continue to be an issue, that the global financial imbalances will continue to grow, and that food prices will continue to rise. There will come a point where all of this reaches a climax and profound and sudden change will come. We are still of the view that such changes will originate in western China, and it is to there that we are looking for clues.© The European Futures Observatory 2010
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