The List

The Strange Obsessions of the Chinese Bourgeoisie

Five items the Middle Kingdom’s growing middle classes are desperate to get their hands on.


The fetish object: "Green gold," revered by Chinese royalty for millennia for its supposed healing powers.

The craze: Once practically worthless in small amounts, the highest-quality jade in China has literally now become -- ounce for ounce -- more valuable than gold.

Although there's an ongoing debate over just how rare jade has become -- critics say that the stone is actually far more abundant than traders claim -- prices have increased tenfold over the last decade, with an ounce now costing $3,000. Further complicating matters, the finest stone is most commonly found in China's western province of Xinjiang -- a strife-ridden region where violent clashes between Muslim Uighur and Han Chinese killed at least 150 people in 2009. 

Not surprisingly, other countries have begun to enter the Chinese market and cash in on their lucrative jade deposits. China's decision to use inlaid jade in the 2008 Beijing Olympic medals was a windfall for jade miners in British Columbia, the world's largest exporter of the stone.


The fetish object: Shark fin soup, an expensive Chinese delicacy that was traditionally only served at important family gatherings and other special occasions

The craze:  The growing popularity of the soup has led to an 83 percent decrease in certain shark populations, according to one report by a marine conservation group. Pleas by celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming to stop the killing of sharks have done little to quell the feeding frenzy.

The problem has now gone international, with allegations that illegal fin-cutting in Brazil has caused as many as 290,000 sharks to be killed and secretly sent to China for consumption since 2009. China has so far succeeded in defeating proposed U.N. treaties that would help protect sharks from extinction.


The fetish object: Wine, thought of as a chic, Western-influenced alternative to  traditional high-proof rice wines and hard liquors.

The craze: The days of baijiu -- the ubiquitous diesel-fuel-tasting Chinese hard liquor that is a key requirement of business deals -- may be numbered. While per capita consumption is still low, China has now become one of the top consumers of wine in the world -- an impressive feat considering the drink only became widely available in the past decade or so. Production of wine in the People's Republic itself has also boomed, with reportedly more than 2,000 domestic brands available. Quantity, however, cannot substitute for quality: A leading critic has called the typical Chinese wine a "very poor quality Bordeaux Rouge." No surprise, though, that the preferred type of wine in China is red.


The fetish object: Tiger parts, particularly the bones that are stewed into a wine that is said to boost virility and treat certain illnesses.

The craze: While the trade in tiger products has been technically illegal since 1993, the black market has ballooned into an industry involving millions of dollars. Prices for tiger parts, according to those investigating the trade, have never been higher with pelts going for about $20,000 and claws for about $1,000 each.

As the wild tiger population in China has dwindled toward zero, tiger farms -- where the animals are meant to be protected from poachers -- have sprung up throughout the country. But while the farms tout themselves as tourist attractions, they are widely thought to be fronts for bone traders. Chinese zoos -- already not known as the most humane places in the world -- have even gotten in on the act, with one recently closed after it allegedly allowed 11 tigers to die of starvation in order to sell their body parts.


The fetish object: Ginseng root, thought to cure a wide variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to fatigue -- especially when it comes from the Badger State.

The craze: Although the Chinese also produce their own ginseng, most Asian buyers have come to prefer Wisconsin's crop. While most Chinese citizens have never even heard of the Midwestern state that produces 95 percent of all ginseng grown in the United States, Wisconsin ginseng fetches the highest prices in Chinese pharmacies. The growing Chinese demand has been so high that farmers in one Wisconsin county made almost $70 million last year alone. This year, a drought followed by a wet summer, which brought disease, has only driven the prices higher. One pound of the root is currently worth $40 -- a 67 percent increase over 2009.


The List

The Horror, The Horror... and the Pity

How the international media is covering the Tea Party.

Thanks to outsized personalities like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell -- as well as recent controversies over immigration and Islam -- this year's midterm elections have attracted more international attention than usual. But as this survey of the foreign press shows, each country seems to have its own unique take on America's anti-incumbent movement.


Narrative: The Tea Party is an Islam-bashing political front

Coverage: While the Tea Party may have begun primarily as an economic movement opposed to the expanded role of the federal government in the U.S. economy, in the Pakistani media it is often described a synonymous with the anti-Islam backlash surrounding the "Ground Zero mosque" and proposed Quran-burning in Florida.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper has described American Muslims as "living on the edge" ever since the Tea Party and other "right wing zealots" ganged up on the proposed Cordoba Center in lower Manhattan, releasing "venomous discourse" into the national conversation. The rhetoric targeted at American Muslims has been called a "reminder of the treatment meted out to other scapegoats in American history."

In Dawn's telling, the Tea Party has risen in tandem with the "Ground-Zero-inspired Muslim baiting frenzy" and is driven largely by the "bigoted rabble-rouser" Glenn Beck who attacks President Barack Obama as a "closet Muslim." According to Dawn, the same "predatory instinct" that led Americans to enslave Africans and wipe out Native Americans is "gathering mass, once again," this time with Muslims as the primary target.


Narrative: The Tea Party is about fear of American decline

Coverage: In a broad survey article on the history and national reach of the Tea Party movement, Der Spiegel's Marc Hujer and Thomas Schulz argue that, "For the first time since the global economic crisis more than 80 years ago, questions are being raised about America's success model, the principle that this country without a welfare state has always been more successful than Europe."

They take particular note of Beck's warnings against European-style socialism and allusions to Hitler and Stalin, making the case that the Tea Party is a movement of "blue-collar workers with posters of pin-up girls in their lockers." They are reacting, the article argues, against what they perceive to be a shift toward a European social model in which they would lose their privileged position.

According to the authors, "Beck gives a voice to... a rage directed against the architects of the new America."

Writing shortly after the passage of healthcare reform, arguably Obama's most impressive domestic acievement, Hujer and Schulz observe that "the more assured of success Obama becomes, the angrier are the protests."


Narrative: The Tea Party will lead to U.S.-China conflict

Coverage: The government controlled China Daily describes the Tea Party as a "polarizing groundswell ... based largely on suspicion of Obama's background, policies and motives." The movement is blamed for the high level of vitriol directed at incumbents in this election cycle.

But beyond the anti-Obama backlash, the newspaper sees the movement as a sign of the "US' inability to find political solutions" to economic problems. China's role as "the major engine of global economic recovery," according to this view, "embarrasses and threatens the US." In response, movements like the Tea Party promote a zero-sum view of the international economy in which only one country can be prosperous. If this worldview is followed to its logical conclusion, war between the two powers over influence or resources may be inevitable.

According to China Daily, "China's greatest danger is that US policymakers face economic and national security crises they cannot solve."


Narrative: The Tea Party is a movement of conspiracy theorists, reactionaries, and anti-elitists

Coverage: In the French media, the Tea Party has become the pinnacle of American stereotypes -- a movement of libertarian, Anglo-Saxon, conspiracy-theory-driven voters who are, more than anything else, angry that the United States is losing its place in the world. "The Tea Party is the party of no," Le Monde wrote in an editorial on Oct. 20. "The Tea Party is also ... a libertarian movement. ... In the Tea Party, they wish to be left alone, to live as before when everything was going well, when America embodied the Anglo-Saxon status quo, when the Taliban were on the CIA payroll, and when neither the Chinese nor al Qaeda opposed the hegemony of Uncle Sam. Those in the Tea Party are typically white, and 'ok' financially and hence in something of a panic ever since the world began to change as the times changed. They don't worry about climate change, because they cannot imagine how mankind could have in its power to mess up what God created." An earlier blog post from Le Monde placed the summer's conservative rallies, including Glenn Beck's Restore Honor gathering in Washington, as "a chance to feed the rumors and conspiracy theories that have shaken the White House through the summer" -- for example, Obama's secret Muslim faith or his supposed lack of U.S. birth certificate.

Where does this movement arise from? The French narrative places the Tea Party firmly in the American tradition of anti-European, anti-welfare rebellion. That long-underlying current has exploded amid a perfect political storm -- the need to bail out banks, reform healthcare, and tackle climate change. "The tradition of anti-elitism is not new in American history," Le Monde writes. But now, "the president himself is seen as elitist in chief."


Narrative: An ultra-radical right-wing movement in the mold of authoritarians of another era

Coverage: When the Argentinian newspaper Clarin dispatched its correspondent to cover Christine O'Donnell's campaign in Delaware, they were clearly flabbergasted by what was taking place in the United States. Their correspondent wrote about hoping to figure out how someone who is "uneducated, unemployed, having a history of tax evasion, who used to practice witchcraft when she was young, who militantly fought masturbation, and who now defends creationism, could unseat the incumbent Republican."

The Spanish are less mystified and more alarmed. "We don't know if we feel more profound horror or more profound pity," El Pais wrote. The author refers to the Tea Party as an extremist movement and notes that O'Donnell (for example) is "proudly extremist." From there, the newspaper warns that "sometimes totalitarianism results from the best intentions and fanaticism grows in the most benign and public settings. The United States is living in one of these moments ... in which its values are in conflict with one another."

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