Rich Gluttons Hold Extravagant Meal at US Embassy, Beijing, Congratulate Selves for Promoting Healthy Eating in China.

Bear with me, for a moment, as you read a passage from a dispatch now available on The Atlantic’s website:

[Alice Waters] put me to work beside her, cutting grilled slices of locally Beijing-made sourdough bread (from a bakery with the jaunty name Boulangerie Nanda) already soaked in olive oil from the McEvoy Ranch, in Petaluma, California; the oil, along with five donated Californian wines, was the only American ingredients used. I spread the bread with a crumbly, nicely cheesy handmade ricotta made by Liu Yang–a Beijing native who spent six years in France making cheese before moving back and starting a business he calls Le Fromager de Pekin–and drizzled more oil on top. And I broke into bite-sized chunks a Parmesan-like gouda made by Marc De Ruiter, a Dutch cheese maker in Shanxi, for his Yellow Valley cheese company (he recently closed it, unable to afford the expensive milk-testing equipment the government told him he must buy).

This is not, despite every indication, the account of a novelty dinner held at Waters’ famous, and famously expensive Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, but rather the truthful account of a meal recently held at, and partly sponsored by, the US Embassy in Beijing, ostensibly to “build awareness of organic food being grown by Chinese farmers for Chinese food.”

No doubt, that is a laudable goal. As someone who has been eating in China for nearly a decade, I’m quite aware – indeed, probably more aware than most of the organizers – of the food scandals that have plagued China for years. But I am also aware that food inflation is a serious quality-of-life issue ( and sometimes, a life issue) for hundreds of millions of Chinese, and thus I have no doubt that the visit of a wealthy Western chef promoting more expensive food is more likely to be ignored by, rather than improve, contemporary China. Alas, the effect of food inflation on a developing nation, it seems, was of little concern to Waters or the organizers of the event (I’m looking at you, US Embassy staff), who apparently couldn’t see past their own stomachs, to notice the needs of the Chinese stomachs just past the embassy gates. Writing of the fine cheese served at the event, the Atlantic’s correspondent, Corby Kummer, made it clear – and without irony! – that this event was first and foremost an opportunity to satisfy Western appetites (according to the Wall Street Journal, less than 1/3 of the attendees were Chinese):

Cheese is a great rarity in lactose-intolerant China, and many of the guests wanted to know where they could find it.

I’m sure they did.

There is much low-hanging fruit to shoot here (the image of Waters, and her well-known eco-grounded belief in locally-sourced produce, jetting over to Beijing with her staff and bottles of olive oil to cook a feast that is both unaffordable and unappetizing to 99.9% of China, is but one). But what really troubles me about this dinner is the lack of introspection that led the organizers, Waters, and the correspondent to believe that, via their own gluttony (and visits to expensive organic farms), they are somehow promoting healthy eating in China.

They’re not. Continue reading

The Primal (Online) Howl of the Chinese Soccer Fan.

Last week my Bloomberg View column took a look at the sustained howl of pain emitted by Chinese soccer fans at the failure of their national team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. You can find it here.

I had a lot of fun with that one. And a lot more material than I could actually use, including a withering tweet to Sina Weibo from Zhang Xin, one of China’s most prominent female authors, who made it clear that she’d had enough of all of the testosterone-fed hand-wringing by China’s ranks of male soccer fans.

I don’t understand these men. Since they knewthat  Chinese football is over, why did they still seize the TV and rail words like “Chinese football is over”? Don’t tell me that you’re expecting to win a big prize like a lottery ticket. Does this belong to a gambling psychology or a consolation psychology? Or do you just find that, compared to the Chinese soccer team, you are not so bad?

My kind of woman.

The complete column is here. No column this week, though, in light of the Thanksgiving holiday. Which I plan to enjoy.

Against exceptionalism: here’s what a housing start really looks like (one for the Minnesotans).

My long-time readers are aware, I think (perhaps too aware) that I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating (and sometimes writing about) the life and fate of my home state, Minnesota (population, 5.3 million). And that mental phenomenon, in part (there were other reasons), explains why, yesterday morning, I was atop a hotel in Foshan (population, 3.3 million) a rapidly developing Chinese city (what Chinese city isn’t rapidly developing) that most Minnesotans have never heard of, looking at data on Minnesota housing starts. For those who don’t follow this sort of thing, a housing start is simply a housing unit on which construction has begun in a given period. So, according to the US government data that I was looking at, there were exactly 709 housing starts in Minnesota in September.

Then I turned around, looked out the window, and saw many more than 709 starts happening 33-floors below. As well as a shopping mall to dwarf any but the Mall of America, a new “financial park,” lots of commercial real estate … and this is just one neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Far more intensive construction was going on closer to the city core. And, in the course of the 16 days that I’ve spent up, down, and sideways in Guangdong this month, I’ve seen dozens of projects just like these, often much bigger (photos taken of the right and left-handed views of the same project).

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who spends any time in China – even fleetingly. It is the stuff of daily life. But back in the US, and back home, in Minnesota, especially, I can’t help but get the sense that there’s an almost purposeful denial that what’s happened, and is happening in China is fleeting; that, in some shape or form, everything will go back to normal and sooner or later Minnesota will have more housing starts than China (or, at least, Foshan), again. We just need to cut taxes. Or spend more on K-12 education. Pick your favorite solution to the current economic malaise, whatever that may be, and it’ll set things back to 1985, again.

At a minimum, over the course of several trips to the US this year, I’ve gotten the unerring sense that otherwise intelligent people are too ready to blame the current economic downturn on partisan factors having to do with Minnesota/North America, without pausing to consider that, just perhaps, there’s something (many somethings) happening in cities they’ve never heard of, changing the living standards of Minnesotans, permanently; that much of what’s happening to Minnesota’s economy has nothing to do with Minnesota.  This sort of economic and political narcissism (“our problems are only our own creation”) isn’t going to lead to a very nice place. At some point, you’re going to have to admit that there is, in fact, something to that competition beyond their lower salaries.

Anyway, dear Minnesotans, that’s what 2.5 weeks in Guangdong (and 9 years in China), and a bunch of Census Bureau stats, led me to ponder.

Kneeling Professors, and an Appearance.

For various reasons known to my long-term readers, I receive news alerts whenever “scrap metal” pops up in a news story somewhere in the world. So, a week ago, I was going through the list (it’s not long), and I came across an unusual story of a group of professors in China who knelt down to halt the operations of a steel mill in Hubei Province.

It’s a fascinating story, and the topic of my latest column at Bloomberg WorldView, “Wanting change, Chinese get on their knees.” The job – and the tendency – of reporters is to blow up relatively small incidents into metaphors for social currents, and so that’s what I attempt in this week’s piece. But whether you agree with my conclusions or not, I think you’ll find the story of the professors to be engaging in its own right. In China, it was an internet sensation, with leading voices speaking out on it. For example, Liu Yuan, a newspaper columnist quoted in the piece, wrote:

We should never propagate this kind of feudal signal. A hundred years has passed since the Revolution of 1911. If we think of ourselves as an ignorant common people as low as dirt, instead of as citizens of a modern society, officials will treat us with even more disregard.

More at Bloomberg View.

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In other news. This past week I’ve been traveling through the heart of China’s scrap recycling country, in large part for my forthcoming book on the globalization of waste and recycling. It’s remarkable how much China’s scrap recyclers have changed over the last decade, going from an industry based primarily on hand labor, to one that’s mechanizing at an astonishing rate. This, too, is a metaphor – a metaphor for a China that’s moving away from its low-end industrial origins. On Wednesday, I’m moderating a panel on this very topic at the World Recycling Forum in Hong Kong (Nov. 16). Nevermind me, though, the panelists themselves are the ones who really know what they’re talking about, including Li Jinhui of Tsinghua University (Beijing), my friends Michel Dubois of Recylux (Luxembourg) and Stephen Greer of Hartwell-Pacific and Oaktree Capital (Hong Kong), and Joe Yob of Creative Recycling Solutions (USA). It should be a great discussion, and if you’re in Hong Kong, and interested in the development of the Chinese recycling industry, that’s the place to be. Make sure to say hello.