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18th Party Congress: NEWS ANALYSIS

Farm boy Xi and the Jilin Food Zone

The food park project could prove valuable in building S'pore-China ties

Published on Nov 12, 2012 3:00 PM
 
Vice-President Xi Jinping (wearing red scarf) with Mr Rick Kimberly (right) during a visit to his farm near Maxwell, Iowa, earlier this year. China's incoming president is known to have an interest in farming. -- PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

BEIJING - Mr Xi Jinping loves farming and that may very well be good news for Singapore.

As the tiny nation embarks on a big food park in north-eastern China, it could find itself with a project which is very dear to the incoming Chinese leader.

After years of delay, the Jilin Food Zone was finally given the green light to proceed in September, clearing the way for its pork and other food products to be exported to Singapore in two years.

The timing, analysts say, is perfect.

The 1,450 sq km disease-free project - an area twice the size of Singapore - is coming into play just as Mr Xi succeeds President Hu Jintao at the ongoing 18th Party Congress.

"Mr Xi's past local experiences and his doctoral dissertation in particular, which is on the marketisation process in China's rural areas, have shown that he will put more focus on China's rural and agricultural development in his tenure as China's top leader," said Singapore-based observer Chen Gang.

Mr Xi is a bit of a farm nerd.

In his youth, during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, he was sent to a pig farm in north-western Shaanxi province for seven years. He thrived after some initial setbacks.

"In the beginning it was hard, but I got used to life in the village, and as people got confidence in me, I had a good life," he said in a rare interview in 2000.

His love affair with agriculture, in particular pig farming, continued early in his political career.

His first posting out of Beijing, in 1982, was to Zhengding county, a pig-farming area in northern Hebei province.

There, as head of a feed cooperative in the province, he led an agricultural fact-finding mission to Iowa in the United States in 1985. It was believed to be his first trip out of China.

He returned to Iowa this February as Vice-President, charming the residents of Muscatine, a well-known pig-rearing town.

The Jilin project, which has an integrated pig farm, would find interest in the new boss of the Chinese Communist Party, said experts. After all, Mr Xi is already closely watching Singapore as a model of development for China.

He has endorsed a 10-part documentary on Singapore, slated to be screened here by state broadcaster China Central Television in March.

"The timing is significant as March is when a new set of Chinese government leaders comes into office and endorses a fresh set of reforms that China should embark on," said East Asian Institute assistant director Lye Liang Fook.

Mr Xi will assume the reins of the Communist Party after the congress ends on Wednesday. He takes the presidential title only in March.

Added Mr Lye: "It is likely that Singapore could be given renewed focus as a reference model particularly in aspects such as food safety standards, community building and inclusive growth."

Mr Xi's predecessors - Mr Jiang Zemin and Mr Hu - oversaw signature bilateral projects with Singapore during their time in power.

Mr Jiang pushed for the landmark Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) in the mid-1990s, an emblem of China's rapid push for industrialisation and development.

The Tianjin Eco-City, which started work in 2007, reflects outgoing President Hu's drive for sustainable development.

Now, the Jilin Food Zone could be Mr Xi's pet project in his ties with Singapore.

Likewise, the bilateral projects had its generational counterpart in the Singapore leaders.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was fiercely behind the SIP, while retired leader Goh Chok Tong proposed the Eco-City to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

The food zone, while headed by Temasek Holdings and not by the Singapore government, could be a useful platform for Mr Xi and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to build ties.

"It has the potential to be a landmark project between the two countries," said Mr Lye.

shpeh@sph.com.sg

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