By John Harrington
DTN Livestock Analyst
"Never give a sword to a man who can't dance."
Confucius, you took the words right out of my month. Well, maybe I would have put it a bit differently, just to promote a few grains of comprehensible rice. But who can deny it has a nice, cryptic ring, worthy of only the best fortune cookies in Chinatown.
Puzzled by the wisdom of the ancient sage? Believe me, you're not alone. Ever seen Marco Polo returned with a wallet full of paper money and scuttles full of coal, the Western mind has been struggling to understand what seem to be the inscrutable ways of the Far East.
Of course, it would be wrong to blame this historical disconnect on either Occidental or Oriental weirdness (though both camps could stage quite a parade in this regard). Cultural differences simply compound the fundamental challenge of communication. And whenever diplomats and politicians attempt to bridge the gap, their own mind-numbing style of rhetoric can turn muddy waters into the smelliest of slurries.
Which brings me to the exciting market news just announced about China's apparent decision to accept shipments of U.S. beef. At least, that's what I think it means. The details and context immediately on the table may require a greater knowledge of Confucius and his ilk than I currently possess. See what you think.
Speaking on Tuesday night to U.S. business groups meeting at the Chinese-owned Waldorf Astoria in New York, Premier Li Keqiang said China would "soon" allow imports of U.S. beef.
China has had a ban in place on U.S. beef imports since 2003, allegedly due to concerns over the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) after a cow with the disease was found in Washington state. Never mind that the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) upgraded its BSE risk rating for U.S. beef to "negligible" in May 2013. Never mind that China started accepting Canadian beef (still rated "controlled," riskier than U.S. product) more than two years ago.
Before moving on to more general remarks concerning future economic ties between China and the U.S., Mr. Li dared to make the following assertion, presumably without blushing: "We also recognize that the United States has very good beef, so why should we deny Chinese customers this choice?"
The announcement was short and sweet and hopefully decisive. Yet, for now, I'm left with at least two questions, head-scratchers that might even stump Confucius himself.
First of all, what did the Premier mean by "soon"? Weeks? Months? Quarters? Frankly, he wouldn't be the first spokesperson on either side of the fence to cry "wolf" in front of the beef industry. Furthermore, ancient Chinese wisdom concerning time doesn't exactly make you start your stopwatch:
"It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop."
But Master Po, my inner "Grasshopper" cannot tell whether the glass is half full or half empty. Please, in plain cowboy English, how soon is "soon"?
I'm not the only one who's choked over this indefinite timeframe. Soon after I posted the news on Twitter Wednesday morning, a follower well-schooled in either skepticism or foreign languages (possibly both) made the following reply: "'Soon' in Mandarin roughly translates to 'when hell freezes over.'"
For what it's worth, several respected trade sources on our side of the field tell me that "soon" should be no later than the end of the year.
My second brain freeze was iced by Premier Li's disingenuous comment that denying Chinese consumers the choice of unquestionably good beef was nothing short of unthinkable. Really? Why has it been altogether thinkable by your government for that last dozen years?
Honorable Teacher? Sir, if you don't mind, I'd like to take a stab at this eternal conundrum.
The real quality and wholesomeness of U.S. beef has NEVER been held in serious question by Beijing. It has been banned from reasons on protectionism, control over the South China Sea, issues of currency manipulation, disputes over intellectual property, TPP negotiations, and other sundry topics tied to global power. But health and welfare of the Chinese consumer has been nothing more than a stalking horse through this long and expensive period of trade disruption.
Positively, the fact the Chinese feel free to float such a statement (i.e., both solicitous of U.S. beef and transparently embarrassing vis-a-vis their own behavior) may mean that this time they really do intend to put their money where their mouth is. And given why China's beef appetite is growing, my guess is that the reopening of this market could cause U.S. exports to surge 20% or more over the next five years.
If so, Confucius will justifiably deserve to have the final word: "The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions."
John Harrington can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow John Harrington on Twitter @feelofthemarket
© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.