China is discovering that poverty alleviation can mean too much of a good thing. Universities that were instructed to buy potato crops from designated poor areas as part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s drive to eliminate poverty by 2020 are struggling to deal with a flood of produce, in a sign of how even the best-intentioned state planning can lead to a cascade of distortions.
Beijing tasked state-owned enterprises, city governments and even universities with helping to jump-start GDP growth in the nation’s poorest areas. The $40bn drive to raise the income of the 30m Chinese who still earn less than 90 cents a day is part of a broader effort to meet or exceed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
For universities, buying crops from designated poor areas seemed like an easy way to support Mr Xi’s mandate. Now they are wondering what to do with them all.
Beijing has promoted potatoes as an alternative crop for areas such as Meigu county in Sichuan province where land has been degraded, even though there is little market demand for the crop in a country where rice is the staple.
Pity the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, which joined other institutions in Chengdu in a deal to buy five tonnes of potatoes every few days from mountainous Meigu county, 400km south-west of the city. The contract runs until the end of 2020. That has left the cooks at Southwestern University with too many tubers on their hands. Their solution was to hold a week-long potato-eating campaign in November.
The cafeteria churned out spicy fries, stir-fried beef and potato, and even potato vermicelli. Cooks managed to get through 6.5 tonnes of potatoes in five days. “It felt like the whole place had been taken over by potatoes,” one student told the Financial Times. “I ate potatoes almost every day that week.”