Confucius on Today’s Food Scandals in China

June 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

There are times when the remarks of a long-dead sage can seem especially relevant.

More than 2500 years ago Confucius gathered around him a group of dedicated disciples who listened fervently to his teachings and then passed them on to later generations in an edited volume known as the Lunyu, conventionally translated in English as the Analects.  I’ll be teaching the text this coming fall and so was re-reading it yesterday afternoon.

Earlier in the morning I had been browsing China news on the internet and came across a video report from Al Jazeera, claiming that when you eat beef in China you may not, in fact, be eating beef.  What you could be eating is pork, or some other cheaper meat, that has been marinated in a beef-flavored chemical additive.

Consequently, a passage in the Analects, one that I had never given much attention to, for the first time jumped off the page.  A disciple, describing Confucius, said,

“He wouldn’t drink wine bought from a wine shop or eat dried meat bought in a market.” (Bk. 10.6)

To be sure I wasn’t reading into the passage what the Al Jazeera piece had earlier put in mind, I turned to the standard commentaries on the passage.  They all agreed on its meaning, expressed best perhaps by Huang Kan of the 6th century:

“As for wine that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t be sure that is pure and clean; as for meat that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t know the animal from which it has come.”

Confucius here seems to presage Al Jazeera’s findings.

Could the Sage possibly have anticipated as well that this past December Chinese authorities would close down three large-volume Chinese wineries for adulterating their wines—one of them used only water and chemicals to concoct its drink—and putting counterfeit labels of famous and best-selling brands on their bottles?  Or that in 2006 fake bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild would sell for $4000, while 12,000 counterfeit bottles of Mouton Cadet would be put on the shelves for $10 apiece (Forbes)?

The moral is clear: be careful about the wine you buy in China and the beef you eat there.  And read your Analects.  Confucius is still relevant—sometimes.

Three Reasons Arab Wave Won’t Reach China

March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on March 2:

The West is guilty of wishful thinking when it excitedly imagines people-powered revolt in the Arab world spreading to China. There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here’s why.

In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon.

This is not to say that Chinese people are uniformly happy, or even satisfied, with their government. There are the poor who aren’t participating in China’s skyrocketing prosperity; there are the powerless who see their lands seized from them by those more powerful and better connected; there are the college-educated who can’t find jobs commensurate with their skills and expectations; there are the activists who have been silenced (sometimes brutally), placed under house arrest, or imprisoned by the state. And, there’s the sort of culture of official corruption where a hit-and-run driver can taunt his pursuers by shouting, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” (the deputy director of Baoding City’s public security bureau).

There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why.

First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.

Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.

Second, that China in 2011 is now counted among the world’s great powers, economically and politically, is a source of great pride among the Chinese people (consider the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics). Remember, this is a country that just over 30 years ago viewed itself – and was viewed by much of the world – as backward. The people’s deep pride in witnessing their country’s triumphant return to the global stage cannot be underestimated; it’s a pride that serves to bolster the legitimacy of the current government, since the CCP, after all, has been the guiding hand responsible for shaping China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower.

Third, China is ruled by a party whose leadership changes at least every ten years. In 2002, President Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader; in 2012 Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Mr. Hu for the two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the government was embodied in the person of one “strongman” – for a full 30 years. The grievances of the Egyptian people could find a ready target in this one man; he was a natural focal point for their disaffection.

In China there is no similar focal point, in part because CCP leadership is routinely changing faces, and in part because within the leadership there are differences of opinion (which often make their way into the press) – over foreign relations, the domestic economy, the rule of law, environmental stewardship, the rise of nationalism, and Internet freedom, for instance. That there exist differences within the party helps to mitigate the intensity of people’s opposition to one-party rule.

At the Feb. 19 meeting with high-level government officials Hu, according to Xinhua News, “acknowledged that despite China’s remarkable social and economic development and growth in its overall national strength, the country is ‘still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise. There are still many problems in social management.’” Xinhua paraphrased him as further saying, “The government should speed up the development of various social sectors by developing education as a priority, promoting employment, reasonably adjusting income distribution, and perfecting the social security system that covers urban and rural residents.”

And in an Internet chat directly with the people this week, Premier Wen Jiabao, in the words of Xinhua, “laid out three planks of government policy essential to maintaining stability: closing income gaps; equal benefits and opportunities for rural residents; and eradicating corruption.”

This isn’t Mubarak’s government. This is a government that realizes what it is expected to do to maintain the support of its people – and its own legitimacy.

Mission of ChinaMusings

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

China today faces a host of environmental challenges: air pollution, water contamination, food scarcity, energy management, desertification, species extinction, and the like.  These challenges may appear to be China’s alone, but increasingly we’ve come to recognize their global effect—and the need for global cooperation in addressing them.   (This isn’t to suggest that China alone is culpable in threatening the planet’s environment; after all, in the U.S., in 2009, our per capita energy consumption was 4 times that of China and our carbon emission was three times China’s.)

Understanding China’s environmental issues is the first step.  But this is no simple task.  English-language coverage in the major media remains limited, focusing largely on the catastrophic: oil spills, floods and landslides, “hydroelectric dislocations” of villages, and melamined milk.

Of course, these crises deserve coverage.  But so too do the everyday problems—and the efforts being made to ameliorate them.  How, for instance, are the Chinese government and the Chinese people responding to:  toxic runoff from the heavy application of pesticides; the drying up of aquifers; the explosive rise in automobile ownership; a dietary trend away from grain and toward meat; the use of energy-intensive appliances by the general public; the dependence by some peoples on forests as a fuel source; the growth of satellite cities and their potential toll on the environment; and the grids inability to keep pace with the growing production of renewables, to name just a few of the problems?

At issue, too, is how there might be global cooperation on environmental matters.  How, especially, can the U.S. and China begin to work together, to consider constructive approaches to keeping the world greener and healthier?

California and Governor Schwarzenegger offer a small but significant example.  In their commitment to the development of automobiles that run on renewable energy, they have welcomed BYD (Build Your Dreams), a Chinese leader in the manufacture of hybrid and electric cars, to set up shop in Los Angeles.  Confident that this move will promote technology transfer, the demand for efficient cars, and 150 new jobs–all at the same time–the Governor proclaimed, “Like California, BYD is a company of firsts. They are leading China and the rest of the world into a cleaner, more sustainable future with their automobiles and renewable energy products while creating jobs and saving consumers money. I welcome BYD with open arms and look forward to growing California’s relationship with China to mutually benefit the environment and economy.”

ChinaMusings is not a site that will report breaking news.  It is a site that aims, through observations and commentary on stories in the media, to promote a better understanding of the environmental conditions in China today.

In your comments, please suggest how ChinaMusings can be a stimulating and useful site for you.

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