EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

Yuan Longping and the Chinese renaissance

Writer: William S. Fang  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2021-05-31

Yuan Longping, China's pioneer in hybrid rice breeding, passed away on May 22. The people's spontaneous outpouring of grief and deep affection was universal and moving.

I was in a teahouse when my host walked in to tell me the news shortly after 1 p.m. I immediately became speechless and stood up from my squatting position. It was like an instance when people learned of the happening of a big event in history. That moment will register forever.

Within minutes and in the ensuing hours, the social media and physical grapevines were flooded with tributes and mutual acknowledgments of sorrow and solace. Indeed, it was as if every family in China had lost a member.

Yuan dedicated his entire life to the improvement of crop yields of China's main staples of rice and grains. Over six decades, he and his team astoundingly raised the crop yields per hectare manifold through generations of scientific hybrid breeding. This hugely emancipated the shortage of arable land, and vastly reduced the ratio of farm labor to the feeding population. This unleashed China's immense labor capacity and productivity.

It transformed history.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, it took four people farming to feed five people in the population. Today, thanks to the revolution in crop yields realized by Yuan and his peers, half of China's population are urban dwellers. With only 9 percent of the world's arable land, China is now able to feed its people who comprise one-fifth of the global population.

Yuan also made great contributions to the world. To date, Yuan's teams have helped train 14,000 technicians in hybrid farming and agronomics in more than 80 countries. The impact of these efforts on reducing hunger and starvation is immeasurable.

For the past two decades, I have been studying the universal renaissance phenomena in history. I wrote about the process:

"As a society solves its problem of food, when its people are well-fed, and they overcome major natural disasters and epidemics, and for a long period has no major war, then people begin to have time to spare.

"They accumulate economic surplus and wealth. They improve and create new social institutions. They derive free time for leisure, contemplation and creation. They study and excavate their past. They rediscover the splendor in their heritage, integrating it into their new creations, and blossom into another civilizational renaissance."

And that is what is happening in China.

(The author is a retired international investment banker and certified public accountant. He graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in international relations, and Columbia Business School with an MBA in finance.)