156. Letter From Secretary of Agriculture Bergland to President Carter1

Dear Mr. President:

I have just completed what I regard as a highly successful visit to the People’s Republic of China. During the ten days we spent there, from November 4 to 14, I met with Vice Premier Li Hsien-nien; my host, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Yang Li-kung; and Minister [Page 601] of Foreign Trade, Li Chiang. In addition to Peking, we visited the cities of Shanghai, Ch’eng-tu and Canton.

The Chinese are committed to a major effort to modernize their country by the end of the century. With 80 percent of the population primarily engaged in production of food and fiber, the improvement of their agricultural economy is necessarily the foundation of what they refer to as the long march to modernization.

It is due to their realization that the United States has much to offer in the way of technology in agriculture that we were able to score some important breakthroughs in our rapidly developing relationship with China.

Forewarned of the unwillingness of the PRC leadership to enter into formal government-to-government agreement prior to the normalization, we sought no signed agreements. We succeeded, however, in obtaining an exchange of letters between Minister Yang and myself confirming what they described as an “oral understanding” with respect to scientific and educational exchange visits, facilitation of trade contacts in a number of agribusiness and food processing industries of interest to the Chinese, and exchange visits concerned with agricultural statistics and forecasting methodology.

In response to our emphasis on the need for the Chinese to be regular and predictable customers of U.S. agricultural products (if they expected us to be a reliable supplier), Vice Premier Li confided that they expected to buy annually from us some 5–6 million tons of grain and significant quantities of cotton (we agreed not to divulge publicly this figure).2

The Chinese gave us previously unpublished data on planted area, crop production, and livestock inventory for the year 1977. Stressing that they had not given such data to any other country, the Chinese did not object to our publishing the data as our own estimates (i.e., without attribution to them).

What is most significant in all of this is an apparent decision by the leadership of the PRC not to permit the absence of normalization to stand in the way of expanded trade and cooperation in the agricultural area.

Because of the length of the visit and the broad area we were able to cover, my delegation (listing attached)3 was able to form a number of conclusions about the status and prospects for Chinese agriculture:

[Page 602]

1. The Chinese appear to have reached a high level of yields per acre per year by intensive use of land, irrigation, and massive labor inputs. They recognize, and we agree, that further growth from these sources is limited.

2. Despite the huge and intensively used labor force, the low level of mechanization limits increase in agricultural output.

3. The application of modern plant and animal breeding can be a significant factor in further increases in agriculture output. Substantial gains also could be achieved by the use of modern chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.

4. The scientific base in Chinese agriculture has been severely eroded by inattention and isolation from outside contacts. It will require a large effort in retraining and new training to build an adequate scientific and technical base in agriculture to undergird their development efforts.

5. If the Chinese are to feed their city population increased quantities of meat and poultry products they must turn to U.S. type industrial production of broilers, pigs, and laying hens. This will require mixed feeds and quality control, and will likely have to depend in part on imported feeds.

6. To reach their goal of 400 million metric tons of grain by 1985 will require a sustained growth rate of 4.5 percent compounded. No country has done this for a significant period.

7. The Chinese appear to be awed by the U.S. agricultural productivity and thus may have unrealistic expectations about the value of our technology to their conditions.

Finally, I would note that we were treated with extraordinary friendliness and hospitality. The Chinese Ministers were exceptionally candid about both their aspirations and their many weaknesses. While repeatedly emphasizing their determination to remain self-sufficient and independent, they look to the U.S., almost naively, as holding the key to their objectives for modernizing their agriculture. This faces us with opportunities as well as serious challenges. The Chinese are unleashing forces which involve new freedoms for their people as well as rising expectations of material well-being. Where all of this will take them is difficult to predict. But I believe that it is very important that we establish in our relations with them a record of dependability and reliability; that we not over-promise, but that we deliver on whatever we undertake to do.


Bob Bergland
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 45, Meetings: 11/3–30/78. Confidential. A copy was sent to Vance. At the top of the page, Carter wrote, “Very good. J.”
  2. Next to this paragraph, Carter wrote, “good.”
  3. The list of names in Bergland’s delegation is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 45, Meetings: 11/3–30/78.