Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping thinks the United States and its allies could deprive China of food in a crisis, an assessment underpinning a frank call for self-sufficiency.

Chinese Communist officials have struggled to feed the country for decades, particularly during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, which caused a famine that killed an estimated 30 million people from 1959 to 1961. Xi alluded to “the time of no grain” but cast the memory as motivation to fortify national security against external threats.

“I have repeatedly said Chinese people’s rice bowls should be firmly held in our own hands, never let others take us by the throat on eating, which is a basic survival issue,” Xi told a recent conference of Chinese economic officials.


“You have a very aggressive, self-confident leader, now going into a third term, declaring this a national security issue,” observed Evan Ellis, an expert on China’s engagement with Latin America at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. “The significance is really the tone and a claim that Xi is making, rather than a change in policy.”

Such rhetoric tends to heighten the perceived risk of an impending conflict, as evidenced by the response to a message from China’s Commerce Ministry that advised families to stockpile a certain amount of daily necessities to meet the needs of daily life and emergencies last month.

“This sparked heated discussion online, with some users even speculating the call to stockpile food was related to the possible outbreak of war with Taiwan,” the South China Morning Post noted.

To Xi’s point, an overwhelming percentage of Chinese food imports originates in the U.S. or from close U.S. allies. China’s top five food suppliers in 2017 were Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Put another way, four of China’s top five food suppliers are members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, and the other, Brazil, elected an anti-communist president in 2018 who elevated U.S.-Brazil relations to the level of a major non-NATO ally in 2019.

“Our country has a relatively high reliance on imports for primary commodities,” said Han Wenxiu, deputy director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, on Saturday. “Any big shortage of primary commodities can be turned into a gray rhino, especially regarding food security.”

"Gray Rhino" is a term popularized by Michele Wucker, who used it as a name for her 2016 book On the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. The Chinese Communist misgiving takes clearer shape in light of the specific sources of China’s food imports. China secured $104 billion worth of food from overseas in 2017, but nearly $23 billion of that came from Brazil, and another $18 billion of food originated in the U.S.

Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Argentina ranked sixth through ninth, respectively, but France rounded out the top 10 by selling $2.84 billion of food to China.

“The reality is that China just doesn’t have the water and land to be food self-sufficient,” Ellis said.

Ellis, a former State Department policy planning adviser, suggested Xi overstayed the odds that the U.S. would use food as a lever against Beijing, arguing China could increase food purchases from other countries. But those efforts would be complicated by a major conflict in the Indo-Pacific.


“Would a lot of ships not dare to cover the insurance to sail through that active warzone? Very probably,” he said. “An active war in their own near-abroad would create serious disruptions for lots of different things, probably including food, but it’s not that a U.S. food cutoff would be the cause. It would be the Chinese launching a war in their own near-abroad.”