Tea Leaf Nation

In China, the Confrontation That Wasn't

An easily debunked rumor about Michelle Obama shows the difficulties that U.S. officials face in managing their message there.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama's weeklong tour of China, with her two daughters and her mother in tow, began on March 20 and has included a stop at the Forbidden City in Beijing, a visit to see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, and a scheduled March 26 visit to pandas in the western province of Sichuan. The White House has stressed that the first lady's official visit will steer clear of political controversy -- unlike earlier tours of China by former U.S. first ladies like Hillary Clinton, who criticized China's human rights record on her 1995 trip, and Laura Bush, who visited the Thailand-Myanmar border in 2008 and urged China to exert pressure on Myanmar's repressive military junta. During her visit, Obama has stayed active on English-language social media by blogging about her sojourn, posting regularly to her Twitter account and answering American children's China-related questions on YouTube. On the Chinese web, she has performed something of a takeover of the popular account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Weibo, China's Twitter, sharing images that include Obama walking along the Great Wall with her daughters and smiling as she takes a toboggan ride. But Obama's charm offensive hasn't been enough to keep the power of politics, or rumor, at bay.

In a March 22 speech at prestigious Peking University in Beijing, Obama dipped her toe ever so lightly in what some might call the political when she expressed firm support for Internet freedom, saying, "We have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard." While Obama's possible jab at Chinese censorship made waves in Western media, something she didn't say has reverberated throughout Weibo. Kong Qingdong, a professor of Chinese studies at Peking University well known for his full-throated support of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on March 23 to his 2.7 million Weibo followers that during Obama's speech, "A female student stood up and asked [Obama], 'Isn't the United States strong because its intelligence agency is listening to the voice of its people? What exactly is the difference between listening and monitoring?'" Kong wrote the U.S. first lady was "rendered speechless," finally replying that she would not discuss politics during her tour.

The apocryphal anecdote -- easily debunked by watching a video of Obama's speech -- has been shared almost 33,000 times, despite its repeated denunciation as false by many of the 9,000 users leaving comments. Commenters are particularly irked by what they see as Chinese web censors' selective enforcement of laws against the spread of "online rumors," under which Internet users responsible for posting falsities shared more than 500 times can face criminal charges, including detention and arrest. In contrast to Kong's post, online speech criticizing public figures such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are usually deleted with great dispatch, and it's likely that a similarly false post about Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan would have been deleted with equal haste. Hu Ling, a reporter with Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media, declared in response to Kong's post, "This is 100 percent rumor. I was there."

Yet Kong's anecdote, while false, has touched a genuine nerve among Chinese web users. A steady stream of revelations about sweeping surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency -- most recently its secret infiltration of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, revealed on March 22 by the New York Times and German newspaper Der Spiegel -- has made Obama's championing of Internet freedom seem somewhat ironic. One user wrote, "Regardless of whether or not a Peking University student asked the question, the logic is still there." Even if the story is apocryphal, he continued, "I wish it were as Professor Kong said, that someone stood up and questioned everything that hegemons do." The editor of Peking University Business Review, who claimed also to be present at Obama's talk, replied, "I wanted to ask [that question] but had no opportunity; I could only ask the people around me. And many people around me were all asking each other."

Photo: Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Air China Offered a Dish 'Specially Created for Senior Government Officials'

And it's far better than the food they serve in steerage.

The experience of flying China's flagship carrier Air China -- with its starchy music, its blithe stewardesses, and its strait-jacketed seats -- is reminiscent of a local U.S. airline: better than driving, though not by much. At least, that's how it is in economy. I've probably flown Air China dozens of times, and like many sitting in steerage, I've wondered both what happens at the front of the plane, and how the airlines convince people to pay several times the regular price for a slightly bigger seat and slightly more palatable food.

Air China, it turns out, amidst the promotions and advertisements common among most airlines, once offered a dish on its business class menu "specially created for senior government officials." The menu, passed from a friend who kept it after a flight and who asked to remain anonymous, is a few years old. It's unclear whether they still do this -- Air China did not respond to a request for comment, and an Internet search for the phrase "this entrée is specially created for senior government officials" in English and Chinese did not return any results.



It's also unclear what's special about braised flounder in bean sauce, but it's certainly better than the sesame beef pastry wrapped in tinfoil that stewardesses would gingerly place on my tray table on many of my Air China flights.

During Chinese food scandals, Western and Chinese media often criticize Beijing for the unfairness of top Chinese government officials eating better food. "Amid milk scare, China's elite get special food," read a headline for the Associated Press in September 2008, a few weeks after top Chinese dairies were found to have sold contaminated milk. And in May 2011, respected Chinese publication Southern Weekend published an expose on organic food available only to government officials -- not long after a slew of food scandals, such as pork sold as beef after being soaked in a detergent additive. Problems persist. In January, Wal-Mart recalled donkey meat that had been mixed with the DNA of other animals. And in October 2013, 30 people on an Air China flight fell sick after eating those same beef pastries. 

Conversely, Chinese state media will occasionally run articles wondering, in a more reverential tone, what Chinese leaders eat. In September 2013, the popular news portal Netease republished an article about "the secrets of long-life" for leaders. It really isn't that Chinese leaders "eat all sorts of exotic foodstuffs from distant locales," the article stated, "but rather less meat and more coarse grains."

Li Ruifen, the former head of the nutrition department at the Military General Hospital of Beijing, a hospital frequented by top officials, is quoted saying that when the leaders do eat meat, the fewer legs the better: Four-legged animals like pigs, cows, and lambs are not as good as chicken and geese. (Li inexplicably considers fungi a "one-legged" animal.) And fish, Li states, is the healthiest of all.