In a country as tightly controlled as China, where everything from tattooed celebrities to Winnie the Pooh is censored, an uncharacteristically tense public debate over genetically modified crops has erupted and it is revealing the limits of state power.
Despite the fact that President Xi Jinping has declared GM crops a top national priority, state-run newspapers have openly questioned the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and opposing factions have taken to openly quarreling with one another. The wildest claim – that GMOs are a Western conspiracy to cripple China by controlling its food supply and causing cancer – was first published in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
While mentions of democracy, human rights, and other sensitive topics are promptly removed by state censors, the government has given citizens surprising latitude when it comes to GMOs. Social media is rife with fake news and anti-GMO fervor, spread by everyone from popular TV personalities to Maoists and NGOs like Greenpeace.
To combat misinformation and build support for GM foods, the central government launched a media campaign in 2014 – but with little effect. Last year, a nationwide survey found that 46.7 percent of respondents had negative views of GMOs with 14 percent believing it was a form of bioterrorism aimed at China.
Long accustomed to obedience and heavy-handed tactics, the Chinese government has found itself in the rare position of having to persuade its citizens through trust and debate. It remains to be seen if the state is up to the task, but the central government has staked the nation’s future on its success.
Lessons From the Past
With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, food security has long been a top priority for China’s leaders. Throughout the nation’s history, famines presaged the rebellions and instability that led to many a dynasty’s downfall. Seeking to avoid a similar fate, the Chinese Communist Party has spent billions on research to develop genetically modified crops that can improve yields, withstand droughts, and even grow in salt water.
The nation must feed roughly 20 percent of the world’s population on just 7 percent of its arable land. But in recent years, drought and extreme temperatures triggered by climate change have limited the effectiveness of pesticides and fertilizers. So in a 2014 speech, Xi declared that China must “boldly research and innovate, [and] dominate the high points of GMO techniques.”
Two years later, in a bid to bolster domestic GMO research, ChemChina, a state-owned chemical manufacturer, purchased the Swiss pesticide giant Syngenta for $43 billion in China’s largest foreign acquisition to date. That same year, in 2016, the state released its five-year plan outlining the use of GM corn and soybeans for consumption by 2020.
Despite the government’s planned strategy, there has been little progress in cultivating GM crops. While it is legal to import approved GM crops for use in livestock feed, it is still largely illegal to plant them within China.
“The problem mostly lies in the rising resistance of the public to GMOs, which has made the political leadership hesitant to go ahead with commercialization,” explained Cong Cao, a professor of innovation studies at the University of Nottingham and the author of GMO China.
Repeated safety scandals have made much of China leery of the government’s ability to regulate food and drugs. In 2008, an estimated 300,000 infants in China were poisoned by powdered milk that had been laced with melamine, a chemical used to make plastic, to artificially boost protein levels. Last year, a Chinese drug company was found to have produced nearly 500,000 ineffective doses of a DPT vaccine for babies.
These incidents have often triggered violent protests. In March, police in southwestern China pepper-sprayed hundreds of angry parents who had stormed the gates of an elite high school after reports surfaced that the cafeteria had been serving rotten food to their children.
Amid reports like these, the government has struggled to convince consumers that GMOs are safe, despite the repeated assurances of scientists around the world and exhaustive research by scientific and health associations at home and abroad.
“If the government says that GMO food is safe, Chinese people won’t readily believe it,” said Sam Geall, a research fellow at the University of Sussex who has studied public opinion on GMOs in China. “Consumers in China, having experienced a litany of food scandals, are understandably distrustful of regulation around food and agriculture, and this extends to a distrust of genetically modified foods.”
On Unfamiliar Ground
Given the explosiveness of food safety issues, the central government has shown an uncharacteristic sensitivity to public opinion by largely remaining silent. In this vacuum, factions with a vested interest in keeping GM crops out of China have preyed on fears of food safety to further their own agenda.
Last October, the state-run Heilongjiang Daily published an interview with a local official stating that China’s top medical and scientific institutions found GM soybeans to be unsafe. In a rare public rebuke, the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology responded directly, calling the interview “seriously misleading” and reiterating the proven safety of GMOs.
The comments came amid the escalating U.S.-China trade war in which American soybeans, many of which are genetically modified, are a sticking point. Situated in northeastern China, Heilongjiang province is the nation’s largest soybean producer and has a significant financial interest in keeping imported GM soybeans out of China.
The dueling official narratives have done little to assure skeptical consumers, who continue to read and share misleading information about the dangers of GMOs on social media.
In December, the Chinese agricultural ministry was forced to refute the persistent rumor that its cafeterias had banned GM foods. The rumor was bolstered by Cui Yongyuan, a popular TV personality and staunch anti-GMO advocate with over 20 million followers online.
Caught in a Conundrum
Absent a clear strategy to win support for GMOs and reassure a public doubtful of its ability to regulate the food supply, the central government has been forced to paradoxically destroy GM crops and confiscate seeds.
In 2016, after reports surfaced that 93 percent of corn from Liaoning province tested positive for traces of GMO contamination, the government launched a major crackdown on illegal GM crops, uprooting hundreds of acres of GM crops, seizing tons of illegal seeds, and arresting individuals caught selling seeds without a license.
“This may be the clearest example where public opinion in China has likely played a role in stalling or stopping an innovation pathway that the government backs, for better or worse,” Geall said.
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, The Week, and The Diplomat.