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China loves its pork, but prices are rising and that could be a problem

Pork is sold at a supermarket in Beijing on April 11. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
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BEIJING — The most pressing political problem facing China’s leaders this week may not be the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Nor the protracted trade war with the United States.

No, it is probably a shortage of pork — during the Chinese zodiac year of the pig, no less — that has become so severe that the rulers of the Communist Party declared stabilizing pork supply and prices to be an “important political task.” 

Chinese love to eat pork. Red fried pork. Sweet-and-sour pork ribs. Glazed pork belly. Twice-cooked pork. Pork dumplings. Trotters. Chinese eat an average of 120 pounds of pork a year. Half the world’s pork is consumed here.

But with a slew of holidays coming up — starting with this Friday’s mid-autumn festival when families get together and feast — officials are increasingly worried that public discontent will overshadow the celebrations.

They are particularly concerned that pork shortages will ruin the “happy and peaceful atmosphere” required during next month’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the biggest event on the Communist Party’s calendar this year.

“We should ensure pork supply by all means,” Vice Premier Hu Chunhua said at the end of last month, adding that China’s pork shortages would be “extremely severe” in the last quarter of this year and the first half of 2020.

“We must strengthen the guidance and management of public opinion,” he continued, according to a state media account of his remarks. 

The party, under the increasingly iron-fisted leadership of Xi Jinping, has tightened security and further stifled criticism in the lead-up to the anniversary on Oct. 1, which will be marked by a huge military parade.

To try to mitigate the shortages, Hu declared that the government would release some of its frozen pork supplies. Yes, just as the United States government holds oil in reserve to release in times of crisis, so too does China stockpile pork.

“As far as the government is concerned, the availability and affordability of food is one of the key metrics people use when answering the question ‘Are you better off now than you were 70 years ago?’ ” said Andrew Polk, an analyst at Trivium China, a Beijing-based consultancy.

“For that reason, the party has a very strong incentive to literally bring home the bacon,” he said. 

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China’s porcine problems began a year ago when African swine fever broke out. This led to the culling of almost 1.2 million pigs to stop the spread of the virus, which is highly contagious and fatal in pigs. It is not harmful to humans.

As a result, China’s pig herd is down one-third from last year, and its pork production has naturally plummeted. Still, three new cases were reported last month, and the virus has spread to Vietnam and the Philippines. 

China produced 54 million tons of pork in 2018, according to official statistics, but is expected to produce only 40 million tons this year. Rabobank, the Dutch financial services company, estimates Chinese pork production will fall further to 34 million tons next year.

The widespread culls led to a sudden spike in pork prices. Even since July, pork prices have shot up by 50 percent, reaching record highs of more than $2.25 a pound and easily surpassing the previous record set in 2016.

China’s version of the social media site TikTok is full of memes riffing on the price of pork. In one, a customer buys a tiny piece of meat the size of his thumb. In another, a man walks down the street dangling a large piece of pork from a hook, the carnivorous equivalent of bragging about his Lamborghini.

In Xinfadi, the biggest meat market in Beijing, vendors and shoppers alike were downbeat.

Pork prices had risen in August at the fastest pace that Yu, a vendor in her 50s who has worked in the market for about 20 years, could remember.

“This had a big impact on my business,” said Yu, who declined to give her full name. She estimated that the number of customers is down by a third compared with this time last year.

“There are fewer customers now and people cannot afford to buy pork. They say it’s too expensive,” she said.

Shang Jinsheng, a 68-year-old retiree who was shopping in the market, said she was buying only half as much pork as she used to, and buying more seafood instead.

“I used to buy pork every week; now I haven’t bought it for three weeks,” she said. “I am on my way to buy shrimp. I’m just passing by to take a look at the pork prices.” 

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With the holidays approaching, central and local governments alike are taking action to narrow the gap between supply and demand.

The southern city of Guangzhou started releasing 1,800 tons of frozen pork reserves onto its local market at the weekend, spreading it out over the days until the Oct. 1 anniversary.

In Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, residents can buy pork at a 10 percent discount from the market price. But customers are limited to two pounds of the meat a day, and vendors to selling only one pig’s worth. 

The central government has told the provinces that they must be pork self-sufficient. Banks, meanwhile, must not only keep lending to hog farms and slaughterhouses, but they should do so at cheap rates.

Still, the government cannot come up with a quick fix. 

“The pigs can’t grow overnight. They need time,” said Sun, a 45-year-old who owns a stall in the Xinfadi market and declined to give a full name.

To try to make up the shortfall, China’s pork imports are forecast to almost triple this year. China imports most of its pork from European countries, but also gets some from the United States.

That makes the trade war with the United States an added challenge. Beijing imposed an additional 10 percent tariff on U.S. agricultural imports in September, taking the duty on imported U.S. pork to 72 percent, and has canceled several large purchases of American pork.

But the government has tried to minimize the impact of the trade war. One official told state-run television that U.S. pork imports make up less than 0.2 percent of the Chinese market.

Still, the amount of pork that China imports from the United States has more than halved in the past two years at precisely the time it needs more.

In the meantime, the authorities are trying to turn consumers away from China’s favorite meat.

The Life Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party, even suggested in a front-page special that eating too much pork was not healthy. “Eat less pork: Both your wallet and your body will thank you,” the publication wrote on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

China’s Internet users were not impressed. “This is a modern version of ‘Let them eat cake,’ ” responded Jiang Debin, quoting the line often attributed to Marie Antoinette when French peasants ran out of bread shortly before the revolution. “They are using so-called expert advice to deceive people, but dare not say don’t eat meat unless you have money.”

Liu Yang contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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