Beijing: After 26 years of receiving food aid, China has emerged as the world's third largest food donor, according to a report by the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP).
China donated 5,77,000 tonnes of food to more than a dozen countries around the world in 2005, with the great majority sent across the border by rail to North Korea, which relies on food aid to feed its poverty stricken rural population.
The report's findings, which track all international food donations, underline China's growing economic and political clout in Asia, and show how far the country has come since the great famines of the late 1950s killed an estimated 30 million peasants.
For the first time since 1979, China will not receive any food aid itself from the WFP this year, under an agreement reached five years ago to phase out donations to the world's most populous nation.
China's food aid soared by 260 per cent compared with 2004, accounting for more than half of the rise in overall food aid donations in 2005. For the past few years, WFP and other countries have steadily cut donations to North Korea.
China is keen to prevent a refugee crisis in North Korea spilling over its borders. Paul French, a Shanghai-based expert on the so-called ``Hermit Kingdom,'' said the food situation had been tight since the U.S. and Japan sharply reduced food aid for political reasons in 2002.
Mr. French said: ``If food didn't come from China, the trickle of refugees could quickly turn into a flood.'' Beijing also sees food aid as a carrot with which to persuade the North Koreans to come to the negotiating table.
For China's leaders, many of whom grew up during the periodic food shortages of the Mao years, ensuring food self-sufficiency is regarded as a basic duty of Government. China became self-sufficient in food production in the mid-1990s, and last year the country's grain output grew to 484 million tonnes.
UNICEF estimates that 8 per cent of Chinese children under the age of five remain moderately underweight. But a greater concern in China's prosperous coastal cities is obesity among the over-pampered ``little emperors,'' the well-fed offspring of the one-child policy.