An era ends as China becomes an aid donor


Today's shipload of wheat given by Canada will be the last received in the fast-growing economy, GEOFFREY YORK writes




Thursday, April 7, 2005 Page A3


BEIJING -- When a freighter docks in a southern Chinese port today with more than 43,000 tonnes of donated Canadian wheat, it will mark the end of an era in Canada's relationship with China.


For 45 years, China has turned to Canadian wheat to help alleviate hunger among its impoverished millions. But the shipment that arrives in China today is the final delivery of food aid from the World Food Program, the United Nations agency that distributes food from Canada and other countries.


From now on, China will be exclusively a donor of food aid, rather than a recipient. It symbolizes a new era for the country and the end of Canada's official role in donating food to what is now the world's fastest-growing economy.


China will continue to purchase wheat from Canada on a commercial basis -- it has become the biggest single customer of the Canadian Wheat Board -- but it is increasingly buying higher-quality wheat to suit the tastes of its middle-class consumers.


This single commodity has been crucial to Canada's relationship with Beijing for more than four decades. In 1959, in the depths of a famine induced by its disastrous Great Leap Forward, China began negotiating a grain purchase from Canada. In defiance of a U.S. trade embargo, Canada started sending wheat to China in the early 1960s, helping to ease the widespread starvation that had killed an estimated 30 million people.


"The vast majority of Chinese never knew that they were getting Canadian wheat," said York University professor Bernie Frolic, a leading expert on Canada's relations with China. "A few Chinese officials did know, and they expressed their gratitude."


One survivor of that era, Chi An, remembers her shock when she discovered that her 4.5-kilogram allocation of wheat flour had come from a hated capitalist country.


"The government had put the flour in locally made sacks to disguise its origin, but the employees at the store whispered that it was from Canada," she recalls in a published memoir.


Throughout the following decades, Canada remained a top supplier of wheat to China, benefiting from the goodwill it had gained by selling wheat during the famine.


"Undoubtedly, without the Canadian wheat even more Chinese people would have died a miserable death by starvation," said Charles Burton, a China scholar at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.


"This gave Canada considerable advantage in competing for Chinese wheat purchases in the years afterward."


In 1979, the World Food Program began giving food to impoverished regions of China, and Canada became one of the biggest donors. Over the past 10 years, Canada has provided almost 520,000 tonnes of wheat, worth about $190-million .


The wheat has helped support food-for-work and food-for-training projects, mostly in remote regions of central and western China. Recipients get an average of three kilograms of wheat a day in exchange for their work on rural infrastructure and other programs, including training in health and AIDS awareness.


But this year, the WFP will stop sending food to China, and the Chinese government will take over the poverty-alleviation programs with its own resources. With its economy booming, China has become an aid donor. It is providing technical assistance for poverty-alleviation programs in Cambodia and Myanmar.


It also recently gave $20-million in aid to the victims of the tsunami disaster.


"It's the first time China has responded quickly and directly to a UN emergency appeal," said Douglas Broderick, the WFP representative in China.


Wheat, meanwhile, remains one of Canada's top export items to China.


"It is emblematic of an outdated relationship with China," said Yuen Pau Woo, vice-president and chief economist of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.


"Despite the fact that China has become a major importer of capital equipment, intermediate goods and manufactured products, our exports to China continue to be dominated by primary commodities. This mismatch explains, in part, Canada's persistently falling market share in China."