Tea Leaf Nation

The Dumpling Effect

Did Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to a dumpling shop create a pilgrimage site?

BEIJING, China — It's well after lunch and Liu Fengju still hasn't gotten her food. The 67-year-old wife of a retired railway worker came to Beijing to spend Spring Festival, the annual seven-day Chinese New Year celebration, with her niece. Wearing brown-colored glasses, a red sweater, and a purple padded jacket, and with her husband, sister, daughter, and sister's granddaughter in tow, she complains that she arrived at Qingfeng Dumpling Eatery at noon -- and now it's 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, a chilly and smoggy winter day. But they remain, along with hundreds of others, waiting for a chance to order the same meal that Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping ate six weeks earlier.

On Dec. 28, with no advance notice, Xi visited a western Beijing location of Qingfeng, one of 183 branches of a popular state-owned chain of northern Chinese comfort food. Xi walked up to the counter and ordered six steamed pork and scallion buns, pig liver stew, and a plate of mustard leaf, for which he paid -- with his own two hands, no less -- $3.40. The story, and photos of Xi calmly and pleasantly eating his food, immediately went viral on Chinese social media, with many users on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, lauding his down-to-earth manner. 

Unlike similar stunts by Xi's predecessors and other high-ranking Chinese officials, Xi's visit seemed more authentic. Instead of the usual entourage of other authorities, state media, and bodyguards, Xi brought only two men with him, and he looked at ease as he sat and ate his food in public. The story, widely covered by both Chinese and Western media at the time, still resonates with the Chinese populace. And those who converged in his wake took pride in Xi's successful foray into retail politics. (The state media, always to be taken with a grain of salt on stories involving high-level politics, claimed the restaurant received a whopping 2,500 visitors a day. That said, the Qingfeng location Xi visited had sales of $71,000 on Feb. 5, which is 4.7 times higher than the same figure from last year.)

A restaurant with white-tiled walls and unassuming décor, Qingfeng seats roughly three-dozen people; by 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the crowd had slimmed slightly as around 150 people packed into the 900-square-foot space. A handful of waiters scurried around, trying to keep order. "These people all came because of Xi," said a waitress, who declined to give her name, as she is not authorized to speak to journalists. That afternoon, over a two-hour period, around four or five small groups of people asked the manager where Xi sat when he ate here. (The second table on the right-hand side in the inner room.) They took a picture of the seat and left.

A 26-year-old graphic designer, who gave his name as Mr. Li, asked a passerby to take a picture of him standing in front of the store. "It's my first trip to Beijing," Li said. "I've visited Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and the Water Cube. This is my last stop." Lanky, and wearing black-rimmed glasses and a gray jacket, Li said he had to catch a flight four hours later, and he constantly looked at his watch, as if to prove it. "I came all the way to see this place because the chairman came here," he said. "The news went viral on the Internet. All my friends back home know about Xi's visit to this place."(Not all the visits were supportive: Radio Free Asia reported in early January that petitioners massed on the Qingfeng branch to protest; we were unable to independently verify this report.) 

Nearby, 20-year-old Zhou Jia, a student at Nanjing Medical University in south China, stood in line with her brother and sister, 7 and 10 years old, respectively. After returning home to the municipality of Tianjin for Spring Festival, she took the bullet train (33 minutes) to Beijing just to visit Qingfeng. "Order two 'Chairman Combos,'" she shouted on the phone to her mother, who was ahead of her in line. The Chairman Combo -- also called the Uncle Xi Combo -- has become a popular phenomenon online. A composer from Guangzhou made a viral music video praising "the caring and loving Uncle Xi," and "the far-reaching fame of the Chairman Combo"; a journalist from Beijing Morning News wrote a sappy Spring Festival narrative about bringing an "Uncle Xi Combo" home to his family.

But the shop has tried not to be seen exploiting the association: There were no signs or pictures in the restaurant commemorating the visit. And a manager disputed the idea that Xi lent his name to an actual menu item. "There is no Chairman Combo. It was a name given by these diners. The menu did not change after Xi's visit," said the manager, who declined to give his name.  

The Chinese Communist Party is also reluctant to engender any sort of personality cult. Since the sidelining of Mao Zedong's successor in the late 1970s, the party elite have, for various reasons, favored collective leadership. From the early 1980s to 2012, each successive ruler of China has grown less powerful. In keeping with the collective model, personal charisma has not been prized: Xi's immediate predecessor Hu Jintao was a relatively feckless apparatchik with all the charisma of a chopstick. But Xi himself appears to be diverging from his predecessor, not only with his engaging manner, but in his consolidation of power: He appears to be China's most powerful leader since the 1980s. And while there are no credible opinion polls on Chinese perceptions of their leadership -- positive results would be suspect, while negative results would be suppressed -- Xi appears to enjoy popular support.

Liu said she learned about Xi's visit from the Luoyang Evening News, the local party paper from her home city of 6.6 million. "I had to see the place with my own eyes," she said. She claimed she was especially moved by a certain detail in the story: "Xi held a boy when he was here, and that boy was from Luoyang. We were so proud!" Out of the blue, she mentioned her stint in her youth as a "rebel" under Mao during the anarchic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and described her feelings toward Xi in that context. "When Chairman Mao died, we were all very scared," said Liu. "Xi makes us feel reassured."

Tea Leaf Nation

It's Official: China Is Becoming a New Innovation Powerhouse

The world's factory is turning into an R&D machine -- and fast catching up with America.

In his recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama argued that "the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow" and that China isn't exactly "standing on the sidelines." A new U.S. federal report shows just how hard Beijing is working to get into the game.

Now that three-plus decades of China's so-called one-child policy has helped create what the International Money Fund calls a "sharp decline" in the pool of extra (read: cheap) labor, Beijing is urgently looking for ways of designing its own products rather than manufacturing someone else's. Put another way, it wants to shift from making iPhones to inventing them. A recent report by a respected U.S. federal agency -- which shows Chinese high-tech output nearing that of the United States, China committing an increasingly large portion of its wealth to R&D, and a huge jump in the number of Chinese graduates with engineering degrees -- suggests it may soon have that chance.

The country is already more innovative than the massive, neo-Maoist factory assembly lines so prevalent in U.S. popular imagination might suggest. China's start-up scene is abuzz with new products, new ideas, and new investment, with some indigenous innovations like mobile messaging app WeChat offering a user experience that can rival that of any U.S. competitor. On Jan. 16, the Wall Street Journal hailed the "rise of China's innovation machine." A new report by the National Science Board (NSB), which sets policy for the U.S. government's National Science Foundation, details what that shift actually looks like. 

Although the NSB report is careful to note that it focuses on "broad trends," its fundamental conclusion is unmistakable: The center of high-tech gravity is shifting to Asia, and to China -- the United States' greatest geopolitical rival -- in particular. China's share of the world's high-technology manufacturing spiraled from 8 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2012, the report says. The United States' share of 27 percent may not rank at No. 1 for much longer, given that China's overall R&D is growing at 18 percent per year. High-technology output over the past 15 years looks like this:

These trends look set to continue. In a Feb. 6 conference call to launch the report, NSB Chairman Dan E. Arvizu said it's "possible China will overtake the U.S." in high-tech output "in the near future." That doesn't directly make the United States worse off: The international R&D pie is actually getting bigger, and the United States' slice looks smaller only by comparison. The United States and even Europe have actually poured more combined private and public money into R&D investment over the past decade, only to see their shares of the total pie shrink. From 2001 to 2011, the U.S. portion of global R&D fell from 37 percent to 30 percent. Meanwhile, China's share jumped from 2.2 percent in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2011. 

Another area of striking gain for China is what the report calls "R&D intensity," which compares R&D expenditures against a given country's GDP. The U.S. share has held mostly steady over the past 20 years, even declining slightly in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, the report shows China's own focus on R&D ramping up fast:

And then there's education. In 1999, fewer than 1 million Chinese graduated from a university; by 2013, it was almost 7 million. The net result, according to the NSB report, is that China is now churning out far more recipients of "first university degrees" than the United States, defined as programs sufficient to prepare the holder for entry into advanced research programs or jobs:

That may not be particularly surprising or worrisome, given that China's population of approximately 1.3 billion dwarfs that of the United States, which has roughly 316 million people. The devil is in the details: The types of degrees being awarded. In China, 31 percent of its undergraduates leave with degrees in engineering; in the United States, the figure is just 5 percent.

None of this means that China will out-innovate the United States anytime soon. High-tech industry still accounts for a greater proportion of GDP in the United States -- 40 percent -- than in any other country. And while the global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn didn't spare the United States, where high-tech expenditures stagnated in 2009 and 2010 for the first time in 50 years, investment soon picked right back up.

China, meanwhile, is facing serious challenges in its quest to lead the world in innovation. Many of its most talented graduates leave the country to study or conduct research in richer countries. Its universities are plagued by bureaucratic red tape and intellectual dishonesty. The Chinese education system still emphasizes rote learning over creativity, raising legitimate questions over how many future Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerbergs populate its ranks. NSB Vice Chairman Kelvin K. Droegemeier told reporters that "China is able to produce a lot of very smart people, but they are challenged substantially" when it comes to turning discoveries into useful new products -- the hallmark of innovation.

Nevertheless, over time, China's gargantuan investment in science and technology is sure to make a difference. Ray M. Bowen, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University and a member of the NSB, stressed to reporters that "developing a high-tech domestic workforce" is a "key building block of innovation."

Taken together, the report's findings confirm two trends important to those who care about the U.S.-Sino relationship: First, the United States is, and remains, the technology center of the world, with an unmatched amount of researchers and R&D money and the kind of cultural hard-wiring that continues to produce breathtaking discoveries. Second, China is catching up. 

Bowen stressed that the "changed global landscape" means the United States "must be more vigilant" if it wishes to remain on top. Will it? Bowen was optimistic: U.S. researchers have historically found ways of outstripping their international competitors, and the NSB official said he would "not be surprised to find out the United States does quite well in maintaining" its capacity as the world's innovation powerhouse, at least for a while longer.

Cover image: AFP/Getty Images. Additional images created by Foreign Policy using National Science Foundation images; do not republish without permission.