Counting on upper middle-class pigs and affluent chickens in China

The pigs in Lonely Mountain village drink only spring water. There are no doors on their pens, so they can come and go as they please. They eat only seasonal organic vegetables. When I visited them recently, one was sunning itself in a patch of mud while its porcine mates foraged for wild foliage or inhaled mountain soil as part of their health regimen.

A little way down the hill, Lonely Mountain chickens were pecking at corn and wilted Chinese radishes as they contemplated a foray outside to nab some worms.

These fowl - fortunate enough to be raised in a remote part of the eastern Chinese province of Anhui - do not take drugs to stay healthy. They are not fattened up at high speed and they breathe healthy Lonely Mountain air all day. Even the vegetables are lucky: They are fertilised with waste from pigs and chickens rather than chemicals. Like the livestock, they are watered with spring water alone.

Beijing is counting on these upper middle-class pigs, affluent chickens and upmarket vegetables to make the nation rich now that widget-making will no longer suffice. To combat the Chinese growth slowdown that has rattled world markets since the start of the year, the Chinese Communist Party expects the masses not simply to spend but also to upgrade their tastes to a point where they are buying more high-margin items such as Lonely Mountain meat.

It is often said that China has a two-track economy, where the old bit (manufacturing) is faltering and the new bit (consumption and services) is powering forth, but there is a split even within the bit of the economy that relies on consumption, according to Boston Consulting Group. Its report forecasts that, by 2020, 81 per cent of Chinese consumption growth will come from households with annual disposable income higher than US$24,000 (S$34,000), which it calls "upper middle class" or "affluent". The consultancy expects the number of such households to double to 100 million within four years. They are forecast to comprise 30 per cent of all urban households, compared with 17 per cent at the end of last year and 7 per cent in 2010.

These are exactly the kind of people who like to know that their pigs are breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water than they themselves are. Beijing has inadvertently contributed to this market by facilitating the grievous pollution of mainland soil and water in the pursuit of the Chinese industrial revolution, making food safety one of the most important issues for consumers.

And now that ever more shoppers have the money to avoid the negative effect of all that pollution on their food, they are increasingly willing to drop a dime on doing so. On Taobao, the online Chinese marketplace, Lonely Mountain free-range "black pork" fetches roughly a third more than normal "white" pork costs in the local food market.

In the run-up to this weekend's start to Chinese New Year - which begins with the most important meal of the year, the reunion dinner - sales of Lonely Mountain black pork have risen dozens of times over, said farmer Ah Tu, an information technology expert who splits his time between Shanghai and his native village. He now does a roaring trade on Taobao in pigs, chickens, mountain goats, ducks and other animals raised in Lonely Mountain.

Ah Tu is not his real name: It is a moniker he has chosen to combine the Chinese character for earth with a prefix that suggests he is a down-home kind of guy. He is not as rustic as all that: During the two days I spent with him, he was constantly transacting pork deals on his two smartphones, sometimes via his Bluetooth headset. One entrepreneur called to arrange 200 lots of black pork to give to employees as a Chinese New Year gift. Ah Tu said his biggest problem is having to slaughter pigs fast enough to keep up with demand.

He is hoping to lure more of his customers up to Lonely Mountain village to get up close and personal with the pigs they are buying. In future, customers shopping at his Taobao store will know the birthday of their chosen creature, when it was slaughtered and what it liked for breakfast.

Designer handbags may be flagging, but designer pigs? Maybe that is what Beijing means by "the new normal" - a world where at least the hogs are healthy.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Counting on upper middle-class pigs and affluent chickens in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe