Beijing’s trade practices have come under intense scrutiny amid its ongoing competition with Washington.
Yet with the United States and other rich countries dominating the debate, the effects of China’s trade policies on poorer countries have been largely ignored.
But Beijing is also making use of heavy subsidies and trade-distorting policies in agriculture and fisheries – two sectors of critical importance to the developing world.
Agricultural subsidies in richer countries give their farmers an unfair advantage in global markets, depressing prices and undermining the livelihoods in the developing world.
Historically, the US and the European Union were the chief culprits but China’s agricultural subsidies now vastly exceed those of the traditional subsidizers.
In 2016, China provided an estimated US$212 billion in subsidies and other trade-distorting support to its farmers, significantly more than the EU ($100 billion) and the US ($33 billion).
Cotton exports provide a vital source of employment, income and government revenue in sub-Saharan Africa, where the livelihood of 15 million people depends directly on the crop.
In Burkina Faso, which has a per capita national income of just $790 per year, cotton represents nearly 60% of its export revenue.
African cotton producers are among the world’s most competitive but they face lower prices and unfair competition due to subsidies in richer countries.
China has now surpassed the US as the world’s biggest cotton subsidizer. Over the past decade, Beijing has provided $41 billion in cotton subsidies – nearly six times more than the US$7 billion provided by the US.
China alone accounts for nearly three-quarters of all cotton subsidies worldwide.
Although the country is relatively inefficient at producing cotton — with production costs roughly four times as much as those in some African countries — subsidies have made it one of the world’s largest cotton producers.
China’s cotton sector has grown at the expense of farmers elsewhere, many of whom toil in conditions of acute poverty.
As more than half of global textile production is located in China, it is the world’s largest market for cotton, leaving other farmers around the world at the mercy of Beijing’s policies.
China’s subsidies artificially boost its domestic cotton production, displacing imports and lowering global prices.
China also imposes tariffs as high as 40% to further restrict cotton imports. Beijing’s heavy subsidies and import barriers have reduced the incomes of cotton farmers in Africa and around the world, causing significant economic pain for many developing countries.
Fisheries subsidies have also fuelled the overfishing of global stocks, contributing to a world crisis. Today, 90% of global fish stocks are already fully exploited and almost a third are being fished at a biologically unsustainable level.
Developing countries that rely on fishing for food supply and livelihoods are most vulnerable to the effects of fish stock depletion.
Subsidies enable richer countries with large industrial fleets to exploit resources far beyond their territorial waters – including off the coasts of Africa, Central and South America, and the South Pacific – at the expense of local fishing communities.
China has emerged as the world’s biggest fisheries subsidizer with the largest and furthest-ranging industrial fleet. Beijing spends more than $6 billion annually on harmful fisheries subsidies, nearly three times more than the second-largest, the EU.
With its fish stocks severely depleted due to overfishing, China has used heavy subsidies – for fuel, shipbuilding and processing – to enable its fleet to expand into international waters.
China now has nearly 2,500 vessels engaged in distant water fishing. In contrast, the US, the world’s third-largest fishing country, has only 225 vessels doing so.
China’s fleet now accounts for 42% of global fishing activity – outstripping the next 10 biggest countries combined. For many developing countries, the effects have been devastating.
In West Africa, which has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, locals in hand-hewn canoes are competing against Chinese industrial ‘mega-trawlers’ with mile-long nets that scoop up everything from the seabed to the surface.
Suffering and hunger
In a region that is already suffering from high levels of hunger and food insecurity, fish stocks are rapidly being depleted, resulting in plummeting incomes for local fisherfolk and reduced domestic food supply.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to portray China as a champion of global development, pursuing a ‘win-win’ form of economic globalization that benefits all countries.
But for trade to truly benefit everyone, China must be held accountable for the effects of its trade policies on poorer countries and rein in its harmful subsidies.
Kristen Hopewell is the Canada Research Chair in Global Policy at the University of British Columbia and the author of Clash of Powers: US-China Rivalry in Global Trade Governance.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.