At a Futaba nursery school, umbrellas have sat untouched for a decade, protecting no one from the rain.

Nearby, a collapsed house is still waiting for a demolition crew.

Mr. Kato said that while he was happy to be back, he struggled to balance a desire to stay with the knowledge that living somewhere else would probably be safer.

“Logic and emotion can’t mesh,” he said, “like oil and water.”

Like Mr. Kato, Ms. Kobayashi had been running a family business, in her case a guesthouse, when the magnitude-9 earthquake struck. The guesthouse in Minami Soma has been in her family for generations, and she took it over in 2001 when her mother retired.

The guesthouse sustained significant water damage from the tsunami. But Ms. Kobayashi’s family restored and reopened it. (Their Dalmatian, who survived the nuclear accident, died just before the renovation was completed.)

They did not expect a surge of tourists, she said, but hoped to serve people who wanted to return to the area and had nowhere to stay.

“There’s no town left,” she said. “If you come back, you have to rebuild.”

Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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The New Hong Kong

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asserted its authority over a global financial capital, through a harsh national security law enacted last summer.

It’s one of the world’s most consequential stories, yet one often overshadowed by the pandemic. This morning, I’m focusing on Hong Kong, with help from my colleague Vivian Wang, who’s based there. Our exchange follows.

David: Britain handed over control of Hong Kong to China almost 25 years ago, and there has long been a pro-democracy movement there. Why did Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s leadership decide to act now?

Vivian: The short answer is the enormous antigovernment protest movement in 2019, in response to a government proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

previous protest movements had lasted a few months, at most. This time, there was huge support, and it wasn’t dying down on its own.

Officials in Beijing also hated that foreign politicians, like those in the U.S., were so vocal in support of the protesters. Beijing is really worried that Hong Kong could be a base for foreign powers to try to topple the Chinese government.

From Beijing’s perspective, has the crackdown worked? And has it created any problems for the central government?

In many ways, it has absolutely worked. There are no more street protests. There’s extensive self-censorship. Virtually every prominent pro-democracy activist is in exile, in jail, awaiting trial or has disappeared from public life.

But there’s a lot of simmering anger among Hong Kongers, even if they don’t dare express it publicly anymore. They still shop at stores and restaurants they think support the democracy movement. That’s why we see Beijing continuing to apply pressure. It clearly, and I think rightly, doesn’t think the threat is past.

imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The question is how much China cares. At the moment, it seems to think that it is ascendant enough to weather this.

to become just another mainland metropolis eventually.

I have a hard time seeing how this story ends with anything other than victory for China’s leaders and defeat for the pro-democracy movement. Do people within the movement see any reason for optimism?

Ever since the security law was enacted, the mood within the pro-democracy movement has been bleak. I expected at least some people to offer fiery defiance and remind people that there is still hope — if only just as a rallying cry, whether they believed it or not. But pretty consistently across people I talk to, the consensus is that there’s not much they can do to change the situation, at least for now.

to go abroad. And not just wealthy Hong Kongers with dual citizenships — people with no experience outside Hong Kong or who don’t speak much English are doing so, too.

China’s leaders also consider Taiwan to be part of their country. But Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, has an independent government. How do you think Hong Kong affects Taiwan?

Many people see Beijing’s actions on Hong Kong as a harbinger of, or a laboratory for, more aggressive actions on Taiwan. It’s all part of an increasingly confident Chinese government that feels it can take these risks.

At the same time, the crackdown is likely driving public opinion in Taiwan further from Beijing. In the past, Beijing has also proposed reunification with Taiwan under a model of “one country, two systems.” Many Taiwan residents can look at Hong Kong and see how that has turned out.

For more: Edward Wong, a Times correspondent who spent nine years reporting on China and has covered Hong Kong protests, recommends two episodes of “This American Life” — “Umbrellas Up” from 2019 and “Umbrellas Down” from 2020.

died at 91.

The news anchor Roger Mudd was best known for his interview with Senator Edward Kennedy in 1979, when he asked a simple question: “Why do you want to be president?” Mudd died at 93.

Go through the list to discover some new music, as well as revisit a few hits.

play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Pinocchio’s problem (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.


Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. What will your life look like after Covid? The Times wants to hear about your hopes, fears, predictions and more. Share them here.

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The Mayor’s House Was Firebombed. The Message: Keep Our Town Nuclear-Free.

SUTTSU, Japan — It seemed like easy money. The Japanese government was conducting a study of potential locations for storing spent nuclear fuel — a review of old geological maps and research papers about local plate tectonics. It put out a call for localities to volunteer. Participating would commit them to nothing.

Haruo Kataoka, the mayor of an ailing fishing town on the northern island of Hokkaido, put up his hand. His town, Suttsu, could use the money. What could go wrong?

The answer, he quickly learned, was a lot. A resident threw a firebomb at his home. Others threatened to recall the town council. A former prime minister traveled six hours from Tokyo to denounce the plan. The town, which spends much of the year in a snowbound hush, was enveloped in a media storm.

There are few places on earth eager to host a nuclear waste dump. Only Finland and Sweden have settled on permanent repositories for the dregs of their atomic energy programs. But the furor in Suttsu speaks to the deep anxiety that remains in Japan 10 years after an immense earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

promise that the country made late last year to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Even before the Fukushima calamity, which led to three explosions and a release of radiation that forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, ambivalence toward nuclear energy was deeply ingrained in Japan. The country is haunted by the hundreds of thousands killed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Still, most Japanese had come to terms with nuclear power, viewing it as an inevitable part of the energy mix for a resource-poor country that must import about 90 percent of the materials it needs to generate electricity.

government’s plan to release a million tons of treated radioactive water from the site into the ocean.

The government says it would make small releases over 30 years with no impact on human health. Fishermen in Fukushima say that the plan would wreck their long journey toward recovery.

“We have this potentially dangerous technology and we still rely on it and we need to have a long-range view on nuclear waste and decommissioning, so we better think about a much more democratic way to handle the cost associated with it,” Mr. Miyazaki said in an interview.

Critics of nuclear power in Japan frequently point to the decades of failure to find a solution to the waste problem as an argument against restarting the country’s existing reactors, much less building new ones.

In November, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took his campaign against nuclear energy to Suttsu at the invitation of local activists. Speaking in the town’s gymnasium, he said that after visiting Finland’s underground waste storage site — a facility much like the one proposed by the Japanese government — he had decided that Japan’s active geology would make it impossible to find a workable location.

Japanese reactors have generated more than 18,000 tons of spent fuel over the last half-century. A small proportion of that has been turned into glass — through a process known as vitrification — and sheathed in giant metal canisters.

Almost 2,500 of the huge radioactive tubes are sitting in temporary facilities in Aomori and Ibaraki Prefectures, waiting to be lowered 1,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface into vast underground vaults. There, they would spend millenniums shedding their toxic burden.

It will be decades — if ever — before a site is selected and the project begins in earnest. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, known as NUMO and represented by a cartoon mole cautiously sticking its snout out of a hole, is in charge of finding a final resting place.

Long before he took NUMO up on its offer to conduct a study in his town, Mr. Kataoka, the Suttsu mayor, had taken an entrepreneurial view toward government subsidies.

Suttsu has a population of just under 2,900, spread thinly around the rocky rim of a deep cerulean bay, where fishing boats prowl for mackerel and squid. Beginning in 1999, with government-supported loans, Mr. Kataoka championed an initiative to install a stand of towering wind turbines along the shore.

Many in the town were initially opposed, he said during an interview in his office, but the project has delivered handsome returns. The town has spent the profits from selling electricity to pay off debts. Townspeople have free access to a heated pool, a golf course and a modest ski slope with a rope tow. Next to a sleek community center is a free day care for the few residents with children.

The facilities are not unusual for small-town Japan. Many localities have tried to stave off decline by spending large sums on white elephant projects. In Suttsu, the effect has been limited. The town is shrinking, and in early March, snow was piled to the eaves of newly built but shuttered stores along the main street.

Mr. Kataoka nominated Suttsu for the NUMO program, he said, out of a sense of responsibility to the nation. The subsidies, he admitted, are a nice bonus. But many in Suttsu doubt the intentions of both Mr. Kataoka and the government. The town, they argue, does not need the money. And they question why he made the decision without public consultation.

At a meeting of the town council on Monday, residents expressed concern that once the process had begun, it would quickly gather momentum and become impossible to stop.

The plan has fiercely divided the town. Reporters have flooded in, putting the discord on national display. A sign in the hotel by the harbor makes it clear that the staff will not accept interviews.

In October, an angry resident threw a Molotov cocktail at Mr. Kataoka’s home. It broke a window, but he smothered it without any further damage. The perpetrator was arrested and is now out on bail. He has apologized, Mr. Kataoka said.

The mayor remains bewildered by the aggressive response. Mr. Katatoka insists that the literature review is not a fait accompli and that the townspeople will have the final say.

In October, he will run for a sixth term. He wants voters to support his proposal, but whatever the outcome, he hopes the town can move forward together.

Losing the election would be bad, he said, but “the saddest part of all this has been losing the town’s trust.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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Russia Restricts Twitter Speed Over Banned Content

MOSCOW—Russia’s communications watchdog said it would slow down the speed of Twitter in the country for failing to delete banned content, escalating its crackdown on internet freedoms.

The regulator, Roskomnadzor, said Wednesday that it would limit the speed of the service on all cellphones and half of stationary devices, such as desktop computers, beginning March 10. The agency said it could block Twitter entirely if it failed to remove banned content linked to suicide, pornography and drugs.

The move against the platform, which is used by Kremlin opposition activists, follows a warning by the regulator earlier this month that if the company doesn’t remove the content it could face fines of $100,000 or more. It comes in the aftermath of a wave of protests last month following the detention of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

“In order to protect Russian citizens and force the internet service to comply with the legislation on the territory of the Russian Federation, centralized response measures have been taken against Twitter, namely, the primary slowdown of the service speed,” Roskomnadzor said, adding that there were more than 3,000 posts containing illegal content on the platform.

An official from the agency told the Russian Interfax news agency that the move would affect photo and video content and not text posts.

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Britain denies ‘completely false’ EU claims as a new vaccine dispute boils over

A U.K. national flag flies beside European Union (EU) flags outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — The European Union and the United Kingdom have clashed over the export of coronavirus vaccines, with Britain fiercely denying it has blocked any shipments to other nations.

The latest battle emerged after European Council President Charles Michel accused the U.K. on Tuesday of having an “outright ban” on exports of Covid-19 vaccines.

He said in a newsletter that he was “shocked” when hearing accusations of vaccine nationalism against the EU when other parts of the world, such as the U.K. and the U.S., “have imposed outright bans” on these vaccines.

This was not the first time that European officials have made comments on this subject. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a press conference in February that the United States and Britain have systems in place that block vaccine exports.

However, the British government was quick to deny the accusations on Tuesday. “The U.K. government has not blocked the exports of a single Covid-19 vaccine. Any references to a U.K. export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false,” a government spokesperson told CNBC.

The EU did not wait long to reply. Michel, who chairs the meetings between the 27 EU heads of state, said on Twitter that there are “different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines.”

“Glad if the U.K. reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports,” he added.

The U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will have discussions with EU officials on Wednesday to clarify the situation.

How they got here

Concerns over vaccine nationalism — the idea that a country or region is doing its utmost to ensure it has Covid-19 vaccines for its own population even if that’s to the detriment of other parts of the world — emerged in late January.

The European Union, which has faced various issues over its vaccine rollout, legislated at the time that member states can stop exports of Covid vaccines that were produced in the bloc. But this can only be applied in two instances: If a pharmaceutical firm is not fulfilling the contracts it has with the EU and if the jabs are going to countries considered non-vulnerable. Low and middle-income nations, as well as neighboring countries, are exempted from these restrictions.

These restrictions were used for the first time last week when Italy stopped a shipment of AstraZeneca jabs from going to Australia.

However, the EU has said that it has not blocked any exports of vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, given that these firms have so far respected their commitments with the EU.

“I’ve long argued that the post-Brexit U.K.-EU relationship would be difficult, but even I’m surprised how far and fast it has sunk,” Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at Eurasia Group, said Wednesday via Twitter.

What else is going on?

In parallel, the EU and the U.K. are also at odds over their post-Brexit arrangements.

The U.K. announced it was extending the grace periods on Irish Sea border checks — a commitment made to the EU during the negotiations to leave the bloc and which should have been completed by the end of March. Westminster has now given U.K. businesses until October to prepare for new custom checks.

The EU has complained this move was not discussed with them in advance and is now preparing legal action against the U.K. government.

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Xi’s Gambit: China Plans for a World Without American Technology

China is freeing up tens of billions of dollars for its tech industry to borrow. It is cataloging the sectors where the United States or others could cut off access to crucial technologies. And when its leaders released their most important economic plans last week, they laid out their ambitions to become an innovation superpower beholden to none.

Anticipating efforts by the Biden administration to continue to challenge China’s technological rise, the country’s leaders are accelerating plans to go it alone, seeking to address vulnerabilities in the country’s economy that could thwart its ambitions in a wide range of industries, from smartphones to jet engines.

China has made audacious and ambitious plans before — in 2015 — but is falling short of its goals. With more countries becoming wary of China’s behavior and its growing economic might, Beijing’s drive for technological independence has taken on a new urgency. The country’s new five-year plan, made public on Friday, called tech development a matter of national security, not just economic development, a break from the previous plan.

The plan pledged to increase spending on research and development by 7 percent annually, including the public and private sectors. That figure was higher than budget increases for China’s military, which is slated to grow 6.8 percent next year, raising the prospect of an era of looming Cold War-like competition with the United States.

wrote on the eve of the legislative meetings now underway in Beijing.

The road to the “global peaks of technology,” as Mr. Xi has described China’s aspirations, is decidedly uphill. The government had previously set out to spend 2.5 percent of gross domestic product on research and development in the last five years, but actual expenditures failed to reach that target.

domestic chip production met only 15.9 percent of its chip demand in 2020, barely higher than the 15.1 percent share it accounted for in 2014, according to IC Insights, an American semiconductor research firm.

China’s premier, Li Keqiang, last week detailed proposals to accelerate the development of high-end semiconductors, operating systems, computer processors, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

“I think they’re really worried,” said Rebecca Arcesati, a tech analyst with the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “They know that without access to those technologies, they won’t be able to reach their targets.”

The new strategy, to a degree, rebrands the country’s previous Made in China 2025 campaign, which sought to propel it to the lead in a range of cutting-edge technologies. It broadly set out to produce 70 percent of the core components that Chinese manufacturers needed by 2025. The plan scared trade partners and contributed to a punishing trade war with the United States.

“China wants to reduce its dependency on the world — not to reduce its trade and interaction but to ensure that it is not vulnerable to the kind of strategic blackmail against China that it has historically used against others,” said Daniel Russel, a former American diplomat who is now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

has in the past used corporate espionage to support economic interests, including in the high-tech fields that the government is now making a priority.

The latest intrusion against business and government agencies used Microsoft email systems and was discovered last weekend. Tentatively linked to Chinese hackers, it is likely to sharpen a divide that could split the tech world.

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have repeatedly emphasized the danger of “choke points” where the United States controls key foundational technologies. At a news conference in Beijing, Xiao Yaqing, who leads the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, announced a review of 41 sectors for “empty spots” that could cause the tech supply chain to break “during crucial times.”

Beijing is backing this effort with money and rhetoric.

China Development Bank, the country’s policy lender, said last week that it was preparing over $60 billion in loans for more than 1,000 firms key to strategic innovation and had raised $30 billion for a new government-backed microchip investment fund.

Ni Guangnan, wrote recently that the country should create a “Chinese system” that could supplant the combined systems of Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and others that have historically dominated computing. China should also increase the world’s reliance on its telecom infrastructure technology to “form a powerful deterrent” against future embargoes, he added.

The tech supply chain remains hugely complex and resolutely global, and too much meddling in the markets can have unforeseen consequences, experts have warned. Top-down jockeying by the United States and China over microchips has in part triggered a chip shortage that recently hit the auto industry.

said it had extended a contract to provide equipment to China’s largest semiconductor maker, even though Washington put the firm, known as SMIC, on a blacklist last year. The extension did not break any restrictions, but showed how there are limits to the United States’ ability to cut off supplies.

Decisions like that could continue to frustrate President Biden, who has cast China as the country’s most significant foreign policy challenge. China hopes to undercut American efforts to isolate it by entwining itself with major economies, including those politically allied with the United States.

the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan.

The phrase echoed one he had made as a candidate only two years before — to dismiss the challenge posed by China. “China’s going to eat our lunch?” he said while stumping in Iowa in 2019. “C’mon, man!”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting. Claire Fu and Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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Deepfake Videos of Eerie Tom Cruise Revive Debate

To those fearful of a future in which videos of real people are indistinguishable from computer-generated forgeries, two recent developments that attracted an audience of millions might have seemed alarming.

First, a visual effects artist worked with a Tom Cruise impersonator to create startlingly accurate videos imitating the actor. The videos, created with the help of machine-learning techniques and known as deepfakes, gained millions of views on TikTok, Twitter and other social networks in late February.

Then, days later, MyHeritage, a genealogy website best known for its role in tracking down the identity of the Golden State Killer, offered a tool to digitally animate old photographs of loved ones, creating a short, looping video in which people can be seen moving their heads and even smiling. More than 26 million images had been animated using the tool, called Deep Nostalgia, as of Monday, the company said.

The videos renewed attention to the potential of synthetic media, which could lead to significant improvements in the advertising and entertainment industries. But the technology could also be used — and has been — to raise doubts about legitimate videos and to insert people, including children, into pornographic images.

digitally resurrected him for a video promoting gun safety legislation. The police in the Australian state of Victoria used a police officer who died by suicide in 2012 to deliver a message about mental health support.

And “Welcome to Chechnya,” a documentary released last year about anti-gay and lesbian purges in Chechnya, used the technology to shield the identity of at-risk Chechens.

The effects could also be used in Hollywood to better age or de-age actors, or to improve the dubbing of films and TV shows in different languages, closely aligning lip movements with the language onscreen. Executives of international companies could also be made to look more natural when addressing employees who speak different languages.

But critics fear the technology will be further abused as it improves, particularly to create pornography that places the face of one person on someone else’s body.

Nina Schick, the author of “Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse,” said the earliest deepfaked pornography took hours of video to produce, so celebrities were the typical targets. But as the technology becomes more advanced, less content will be needed to create the videos, putting more women and children at risk.

A tool on the messaging app Telegram that allowed users to create simulated nude images from a single uploaded photo has already been used hundreds of thousands of times, according to BuzzFeed News.

have called the “liar’s dividend.”

In Gabon, opposition leaders argued that a video of President Ali Bongo Ondimba giving a New Year’s address in 2019 was faked in an attempt to cover up health problems. Last year, a Republican candidate for a House seat in the St. Louis area claimed that the video of George Floyd’s death in police custody had been digitally staged.

As the technology advances, it will be used more broadly, according to Mr. Gregory, the artificial intelligence expert, but its effects are already pronounced.

“People are always trying to think about the perfect deepfake when that isn’t necessary for the harmful or beneficial uses,” he said.

In introducing the Deep Nostalgia tool, MyHeritage addressed the issue of consent, asking users to “please use this feature on your own historical photos and not on photos featuring living people without their permission.” Mr. Ume, who created the deepfakes of Mr. Cruise, said he had no contact with the actor or his representatives.

Of course, people who have died can’t consent to being featured in videos. And that matters if dead people — especially celebrities — can be digitally resurrected, as the artist Bob Ross was to sell Mountain Dew, or as Robert Kardashian was last year in a gift to his daughter Kim Kardashian West from her husband, Kanye West.

Black Mirror,” whole aspects of our personalities could be simulated after death, trained by our voices on social media.

But that raises a tricky question, he said: “In what cases do we need consent of the deceased to resurrect them?”

“These questions make you feel uncomfortable, something feels a bit wrong or unsettling, but its difficult to know if that’s just because it’s new or if it hints at a deeper intuition about something problematic,” Mr. Ajder said.

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For U.S. Farmers, China Is Back and Bigger Than Ever

China is once again the U.S.’s chief customer for agricultural goods, three years after the start of a bruising trade war that prompted American farmers to try to wean themselves off their biggest market.

Following a cease-fire between the world’s two largest economies last year, U.S. farmers are shipping record volumes of crops and meat across the Pacific. The surging agricultural exports are helping power a turnaround in the U.S. farm economy, lifting commodity prices and profits for agribusinesses, and fueling expectations that farmers will devote more land than ever for some crops.

U.S. agricultural exports to China in 2020 rose to 55.5 million tons and comprised one-quarter of all farm shipments, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data. China is now buying more farm goods than it did before the trade war, and U.S. agricultural officials expect Chinese demand to grow further.

Brian Pridgeon operates a hog farm in Montgomery, Mich. He is excited about China’s pork-purchasing spree but worries it will wane as that country’s own production rebounds.

The revival of trade relations is rippling across fields and barns throughout the U.S., buoying businesses that suffered as Chinese tariffs on U.S. goods such as soybeans and pork slashed exports and pressured prices.

Josh Gackle, a North Dakota farmer who grows corn, soybeans and other crops, said sharply higher commodity prices have allowed him to show his bankers this year—the first in six—that his farm will turn a profit.

“It’s definitely encouraging to see China back in the market,” Mr. Gackle said, adding that he plans to build a $500,000 shop on his farm for fixing equipment.

Like other farmers, Mr. Gackle had bet big on China in recent years, planting soybeans across half his 6,000 acres. In 2018, the year the trade conflict began, U.S. soybean exports to China fell 74% by volume. Prices for the oilseeds tumbled, too, and the Trump administration launched a relief program that ultimately would dole out more than $23 billion in aid to struggling farmers.

U.S. farmers, industry groups and government officials hurried to woo buyers in markets beyond China, including Europe and Southeast Asia. Launching a project to make up for lost sales to China, soybean officials joined regional trade exchanges overseas and led prospective buyers on tours of U.S. farms and shipping infrastructure.

The U.S. and China signed a deal in January 2020 marking a truce in the trade war, with Beijing pledging to boost U.S. agricultural imports. China’s swift recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and efforts to rebuild the country’s hog herd following a deadly swine disease, are further fueling China’s appetite for U.S. farm goods, agriculture executives and analysts said.

China’s race to fatten its hogs helped drive a 53% jump in U.S. soybean exports to the country last year compared with 2019, representing the second-highest volume on record and more than half of all soybean shipments, according to USDA. Corn exports soared more than 20-fold to a new high.

Brian Pridgeon interacts with pigs on his Michigan farm. China is now buying more U.S. agricultural goods than it did before the trade war.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Should American farmers continue trying to wean themselves off sales to China? Join the conversation below.

In the first eight weeks of this year, Chinese buyers have purchased nearly triple the amount of U.S. soybeans compared with the same period a year earlier. Prices for the oilseeds are up 64% from year-ago levels. In response, U.S. farmers are expected to plant a record 182 million acres of corn and soybeans this spring, boosting soybean acreage by seven million from 2020, according to a USDA forecast.

Grain-trading giants that are pumping out feed ingredients for Chinese hog farmers say they expect the strong demand to continue. Chinese purchases are helping draw down U.S. corn and soybean stockpiles, prompting domestic processors to rush to lock in supplies and boosting some food prices for consumers.

“This is not a one-year phenomenon,” said Ray Young, financial chief at grain-trading firm Archer Daniels Midland Co. ADM 0.40% during a conference last week. Cargill Inc. said Thursday that it would plow $475 million into its U.S. soybean facilities, expanding processing plants in Ohio and Iowa and automating some loading operations in Kansas and Missouri.

Farmers and agricultural officials caution that China’s rapid return must not impede recent U.S. efforts to court buyers in other world markets.

Brian Pridgeon cradles a piglet on his farm, which raises 70,000 pigs a year. U.S. soybean exports to China jumped 53% last year as the country raced to fatten its own hog herds that were devastated by disease.

Michigan hog farmer Brian Pridgeon said China’s pork-purchasing spree is exciting. But he said he worries it will wane as China’s own production rebounds.

“We can’t just be reliant on one partner,” said Mr. Pridgeon, who raises 70,000 pigs a year.

‘The wish is to build demand for soybeans in emerging markets so that we’re not just tied to China.’

— Josh Gackle, North Dakota farmer

The Biden administration’s newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in February that strong Chinese demand and higher commodity prices were good news for U.S. farmers. “The bad news is that at any point in time, because of the complex nature of that relationship, things can happen that might impact and affect those purchases,” he said.

Soybean industry officials say efforts to expand U.S. oilseeds’ reach haven’t let up. Unable to travel due to global Covid-19 restrictions, the U.S. Soybean Export Council instead hosted some 400 virtual events for global buyers within the past year and launched its biggest-ever digital marketing campaign to attract new customers, said Jim Sutter, the council’s chief executive.

As part of that effort, Mr. Gackle logged onto a Zoom call at 10 p.m. one night last month to answer questions about his farm from poultry and aquaculture firms in countries including Vietnam and Indonesia.

“The wish is to build demand for soybeans in emerging markets so that we’re not just tied to China,” Mr. Gackle said. “I don’t think any farmer thinks this will last forever.”

U.S. agricultural exports to China rose to 55.5 million tons last year and comprised one-quarter of all farm shipments, according to USDA data. Many farmers expect the strong demand to wane over time.

Write to Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com

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