China’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria this weekend was not its first, but it is the more controversial. Forget China’s protestations that it exercised its veto to be supportive of Moscow’s “reasonable concerns” over the resolutions’s wording and to help maintain the unity and authority of the Security Council, seen above in session on Feb. 4th. Forget, too, the Iranian dimension to all this. There was never a realistic chance that Beijing would support a resolution calling for forced regime change in the face of popular protests and “a political transition to a democratic, plural political system.”
“The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria should be fully respected,” said Li Baodong, China’s permanent representative to the UN. Change one proper noun in that sentence and it will sound awfully familiar.
A senior U.N. official says that loss of farmland poses a major threat to China’s ability to be self-sufficient in grain. The warning comes from Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food, in a preliminary report based on a visit to China in December. De Schutter writes:
Since 1997, China has lost 8.2 million hectares of arable land due to urbanization, forest and grassland replanting programmes, and damage caused by natural disasters, and the country’s per capita available land is now at 0.092 hectares, 40 per cent of the world average. This shrinking of arable land represents a major threat to the ability of China to maintain its current self-sufficiency in grain. China has adopted the principle according to which any cultivated land lost for other purposes should be reclaimed elsewhere, and it has set a “red line” at 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) beyond which arable land will not be allowed to shrink further. But China is already dangerously close to this limit.
De Schutter also highlights the issue of drought:
Water scarcity is a huge problem: per capita water availability is less than one third the world average. According to one estimate, climate change may cause agricultural productivity to drop by 5 to 10 per cent by 2030 in the absence of mitigation actions, affecting principally wheat, rice and maize. Indeed, already today, droughts affect between 200 and 600 million mu of farmland in China every year.
De Schutter recognizes the progress Beijing has made in improving food security, but says more needs to done to improve living conditions in rural areas, to improve the security of land tenure and to move to more sustainable farming. All these are challenges that Beijing acknowledges it faces, though that makes addressing them none the less urgent.
The Copenhagen Accord struck by China, the U.S., Brazil, India and South Africa on climate change smacks of declaring victory and going home. It is not legally binding. It does no more than recognize the need to limit global temperatures rising to no more than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. It sets collective goals for rich nations to fund poor nations’ adjustment to going greener that are so broad as to be meaningless. It puts the monitoring of developing nations’ progress in their own hands. It does nothing of substance on promoting carbon markets beyond saying “various approaches” will be pursued. Even then the accord hasn’t got the backing of the all the participants in the UN’s Copenhagen climate conference and the meeting as a whole did no more than ‘note’ it.
From Beijing’s point of view, it is job done. It has not had to accept a binding treaty, and the verification process for whatever voluntary steps its takes to control greenhouse gas emissions will be in its own hands. (It has set itself a target of cutting the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for every unit of GDP by up to 45%.) Beijing will also have taken note of how effective its alliance with India has been in dealing with the U.S. But while the accord serves both countries interests the criticism from developing nations that China and India have sought to portray themselves as championing must have stung, whatever spin the propaganda bosses put on it.
The UN now has a year to salvage something from the rubble of Copenhagen that can turn the five-way accord in to a U.N-wide binding treaty before the climate conference reconvenes in Mexico City in December 2010. Whether anyone in Beijing or Washington for that matter really cares is another matter.
Support, not unsurprising, though, for the Hu-Wen policy of harmonious development from the U.N.’s newly published China Development Report, compiled by researchers from the China Institute for Reform and Development and other think-tanks. China needs to provide rural areas with better education, health, social security and employment services to sustain the country’s economic growth, the report says. The increasing increasing rural-urban divide is restricting consumption and reducing productivity.
The U.N. report did acknowledge significant progress made in dealing with rural poverty since the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping three decades ago. Rural poverty rates had fallen from 30.7 per cent in 1978 to just 1.6 per cent in 2007. But rural areas were falling behind the cities’ gains in social security, healthcare and particularly education. One reason identified by the report was the hukou registration system that cuts off migrant workers from healthcare and other social services.
The U.N. report argues that investment in public services may produce more economic boost than infrastructure spending, which is the focus of the 4 trillion yuan stimulus package announced a week ago. Every 1 yuan rise in spending on rural education, for example, yields 8.43 yuan in added farm and livestock production, compared with a 6.75 yuan boost from infrastructure, the U.N. says. The trouble is that while that may be true in the medium- to long-term, it doesn’t give the immediate boost to GDP growth that Beijing now needs.