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Commentary: 'Tarrifying' future for U.S. soy? Don't expect Chinese protests over food costs

If the Chinese government wants to hit Trump where it hurts over tariffs, I would bet on their ability to stick it to Midwest farmers for a bad, long time.

I think the Chinese will: 1) find beans somewhere else at a premium and force their consumers to pay more 2) grow more beans or make it seem so 3) reduce the amount of beans imported by reducing the rise in meat consumption 4) all of the above.

I have some personal connections to China. My wife and I for several years volunteered in something called the 909 English Conversation Group, which is still operated out of a church in Fargo. The program is a cultural exchange, promoted mostly among visiting scholars and spouses at North Dakota State University. Most are here for several months to a few years.

The group attracts a smattering of participants from a number of countries: Nepal, Hungary, Afghanistan, Brazil, Pakistan and India. They're Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, "rationalist," or atheist.

Most participants are Chinese.

Almost all of our Chinese friends have master's or doctorate degrees in technical fields like engineering or economics. Many of those are professors back home. The program is about talking about each other's cultures and helping to correct pronunciation glitches. We've shared holiday parties and taken them to the Minnesota lakes for ice fishing and fishing demonstrations or to local events. We help them practice driving tests. We act as surrogate relatives for their kids.

When the U.S. institutes tariffs and the Chinese counter-tariff, I think of their impact on U.S. farmers first, but also about how it affects the Chinese. It won't be easy on anybody.

A few observations:

China's government controls mass media as well as social media — in ways that Americans would never accept. (Want a Chinese friend to see a picture from an event? Send a photo through a secure e-mail address. Forget posting it on Facebook.)

There have been recent international stories about how cameras in public places, equipped with facial recognition software, are becoming more popular in China, reputedly to apprehend criminals or even shame people who are jaywalkers at intersections. It's been described as a "panopticon" — not as all-seeing as the headlines, but it gives people the feeling they're being watched all of the time. The government is trying to institute a "sincerity culture" based on social credits calculated on formulas using personal information and online activity.

The Chinese ruling Communist Party seemingly does what it wants, and the Chinese I know are mostly fatalistic about that. Some of the Chinese we've known acknowledge they are members of their government's Communist Party (good for the career). Some seem wealthy. They live in expensive apartments back home and travel to Albertville, Minn., to buy Coach bags for family and friends in China.

But when asked about individual impact on government, they smile and shrug. It would be pointless — silly — to lobby for policy, even as an intellectual elite. It certainly would be bad for their careers.

So, what happens as American soybeans become less available in China? Don't expect a big protest. The Chinese will grow as many beans as they can and will emphasize they're doing that, regardless of reality. I heard a National Public Radio interview with a Chinese farmer who said she'd consider growing more soy, but only if the government pays a bigger subsidy for it. I'm sure they will.

In the meantime, China will simply get the rest from Brazil or Argentina. Farmers in Trump country will become residual suppliers to China. Tariffs may help the larger U.S. economy but it will also take dollars from U.S. soybean growers, for years.