Foreign Policy

Are China's Cabinets Empty?

Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter. This week's highlights: A. State campaign against food waste raises questions about food security in China, what to make of you Investigation of a former political advisor to Vice President Wang Qishan and Chinese tourists stay home for the golden week.

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An ongoing campaign against food waste in China has raised questions about the country's food security in a global agricultural crisis. The "Clean Plate" campaign, launched in August and promoted by President Xi Jinping himself, has limited the number of dishes allowed on restaurant tables and has led to a large number of contributions from celebrities demonstrating their frugal eating habits.

Online commentators have pushed back Washington Post's coverage of the campaign amid a mixture of real sentiment and angry nationalism, arguing that the measures were moral and not the result of an incipient crisis. But it is the poor who are hardest hit by food price inflation, which exceeded 10 percent over the course of 2020. Xi, meanwhile, has said that citizens should keep a "sense of crisis" about food security.

Crisis mode? Food prices in China have risen sharply this year due to natural disasters. Pork prices have fluctuated sharply after the African swine fever outbreaks last year. The government relied on its deep pork reserves, but these are now running low, forcing prices back up. The floods in southern China, meanwhile, have ruined around 13 million acres of grain.

The state media's drive to reassure the public that food supplies are stable could point to Beijing's uncertainty. Farm workers make up around 25 percent of the Chinese population – up from 40 percent in 2008, but still far higher than in industrialized countries.

Projection performance. However, the purpose of the campaign could be the image of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as well as national needs. Voracious and corrupt officials are an ancient source of anger in China. Anti-corruption campaigns in 2013, the first year in power of Xi, limited banquets by officials. The new campaign could serve to signal the CCP's disapproval of lavish spending and create an "all-in-this-together" spirit.

New measures banning civil servants from drinking working weeks – even outside of duty – seem to be following these lines. In addition to the moral element, gifts with expensive alcohol and cigarettes are a regular means of bribery. However, the government has done nothing to eradicate the private and top secret food supply system that those in power enjoy.

Between the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang and the new national security law in Hong Kong, it's been a very bad year for China's image. New polls from the Pew Research Center show a sharp surge in negative views of China around the world, as reported by Amy Mackinnon, Darcy Palder and Colum Lynch on foreign policy.

United States public opinion has also fallen under the Trump administration, but an end to Trumpism now seems much more possible than an end to China's new authoritarianism.

Key Wang ally targeted. Dong Hong, a former political adviser to China’s Vice President Wang Qishan, is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline” – a sentence that could mean a formal conviction for corruption and other crimes within the next year or two for Dong. Wang's control over the Central Disciplinary Commission, which oversees the CCP's members, played a key role in Xi's rise to power, and Wang is usually considered one of his close allies.

But targeting aides is a common way to launch a campaign against high-ranking officials, and the rumor mill has been buzzing that Wang might be next. With the outside world knowing so little about what is going on within the elite level of Chinese politics, almost anything is possible – from Dong's connection with Wang, who is weaker than stated, to Xi's paranoia, which extends to his own allies.

German ambiguity. Germany's attitude towards China is still very divided: public opinion has turned against Beijing, but the German government and the business elite remain committed to their vision of China as a large market for Germany. (China is Germany's third largest export partner after the US and the rest of the European Union.) Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian's coverage at Axios this week revealed that a senior German official blocked a 2018 report on how far along Chinese are Influence in the country expanded – even within the government itself.

China's global law. A revised message from the Chinese Embassy in the UK, including five exclamation marks in consecutive sentences, threatens protesters in London with Hong Kong's national security law and demands their arrest by the UK authorities. Many critics have stressed the global scope of the law, and it seems a mistake for China's global image to embrace it. But the embassy in London, like China's diplomatic missions in the West, seems more concerned with maintaining its own status in a paranoid setting at home.

The golden week stays at home. It is China's Golden Week, the annual holiday that surrounds the national day on October 1st. However, since the pandemic effectively locks out foreign travel, Chinese tourists have had to go inland. In October, Chinese visitors usually flood Thailand, Cambodia, and other nearby hotspots. Instead, they drove to the southern island of Hainan to get a taste of the sun.

Even if tourism was diverted, a weak economy and pandemic fears resulted in domestic consumption falling 31 percent since last year, which is a bad sign of consumer confidence.

Video game hit. The recently released Chinese game Genshin Impact is a huge hit with Western consumers – a rarity for an AAA game developed only by a Chinese studio, despite the fact that Chinese companies own a large proportion of overseas video game companies. Like many mobile-first games, Genshin Impact is free to play but depends on you attracting a small number of funders by playing in-game for powerful characters.

However, the game's compliance with Chinese censorship has already turned some players off. Terms such as "Hong Kong" and "Taiwan" are prohibited on the chat services.

China's climate promises. Xi's recent pledges that China would cut carbon emissions by 2060 made some excited headlines – but they're basically worthless with no actual, short-term commitments for decades to come. China promises many things in the future, including forced reunification with Taiwan; That doesn't mean they'll happen.

Existing Chinese emissions have rebounded since the beginning of the pandemic on a well-known pattern of weakening environmental law enforcement during times of economic crisis to fuel the recovery and boost GDP numbers.

A dictionary from Maquiao, Han Shaogong, trans. Julia Lovell, The Random House of the Penguins, 2005.

A dictionary from Maqiao, by Han Shaogong, translated by Julia Lovell

The different perspectives on China's urban and rural food crisis reminded me of one of the greatest explorations of rural life: Han Shaogong's 1996 A Dictionary of Maqiao. The book is a representation of a (fictional) Chinese village through the uniqueness of its dialect and life – and it is one of the richest and funniest depictions of the landscape and the diversity of local Chinese culture.

As the book progresses, his entries – including sex, gods, and the "street sickness" of visiting the city – merge into a story of the damage politics and vendettas have done to ordinary villagers.

That's it for this week.

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