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China: Feeding a Huge Population

With approximately 1.3 billion people, China has the world’s largest population. Although over 68 percent of China’s population is rural, the rural population density in China is extremely high, nearly twenty times that of the United States. The land area of China is similar to that of the United States, but extensive mountain ranges and deserts, as well as urban encroachment, leave only about 10 percent of China’s landmass suitable for cultivation (U.S. Department of State 2003a).

Agricultural Regions of China
Agriculture—Despite extreme population pressures and limited natural resources, China is nearly self-sufficient in food production and even exports some agricultural products, primarily to neighboring countries. Due to the reforms initiated in 1979, China has achieved dramatic improvements in agricultural production levels during the past twenty years. These reforms have included agricultural policy reversals that dismantled the communes and allowed individual farm households to manage family farms. An average farming household in China now cultivates about one hectare (approximately 2.5 acres), often divided into several, non-contiguous small plots. The farmers do not own the land but are allocated usage rights based on family size and other factors. The extensive use of fertilizer and, in some regions, double- and triple-cropping, have helped maintain high yields. Rural per capita income has increased dramatically since the early 1980s, but, with about three farm workers per hectare of farmland, rural per capita income remains less than 40 percent of that of urban workers. (Gale 2002).

terraced fields in northern China
Terraced fields in northern China
Photo by J. Willis

Taiwan—Much of Taiwan is mountainous and only about one-quarter of the island’s 14,000 sq. mile land area is cultivable. Intensive cultivation and double- and triple-cropping allow Taiwan to maintain self-sufficiency in rice and achieve high yields in sugarcane, fruit, and vegetables. Taiwan’s farmers also raise pork and poultry. With a per capita GDP of US$12,876 (2001), the island’s 22.5 million (2002) people enjoy an increasingly high standard of living by regional standards. Demand for a variety of foods, including meat, is rising (U.S. Department of State 2003f).

Map of China superimposed over U.S. map

Economy—In the late 1970s, China’s communist government launched a series of economic reforms aimed at transforming China into a relatively advanced, industrialized nation by the year 2000. The sectors targeted by these reforms, labeled the Four Modernizations, included agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. To stimulate economic growth, Chinese economic policies emphasized export manufacturing, foreign trade, and foreign investment. To support this growth and maintain access to foreign markets, the Chinese government has gradually improved the physical, legal, and economic infrastructure. These reforms have shaped a gradual shift away from the centrally planned economic model toward what Chinese leaders term a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics.” The result has been a remarkable transformation of the Chinese economy. The annual growth rate in the 1980s was over 10 percent. In the 1990s, the Chinese government adopted measures to govern the rate of growth and avoid hyperinflation. Currently, China is still the world’s fastest-growing major economy, achieving at least 7 percent growth in 2002, despite worldwide economic difficulties.

Hong Kong (SAR)—The 6.8 million (2002) residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) live on only 1,100 sq. km. (approx. 440 sq. miles), much of which is mountainous. The US$24,750 (2002) per capita GNP suppports a high standard of living, and Hong Kong residents demand a varied diet (World Bank2003a). With very little land devoted to agriculture, Hong Kong imports much of its food supply from mainland China, primarily from nearby Guangdong Province (U.S Department of State 2003b).

Additional Information—For more general descriptions of China, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, see the Department of State Country Background Notes (U.S. Department of State 2003a,b,f).