Tea Leaf Nation

China's 'Stinky Meat-Gate'

A recent muckraking report is a black eye for McDonald's and KFC, but also for the country's regulators.

"This beef is turning green," one worker said to a hidden camera. "It stinks," another chimed in. The frozen meat in question had expired more than seven months ago by November 2013, when the exchange took place. But the batch was re-cut and repackaged anyway, then stamped with a new expiration date: June 2015. This conversation stands among the damning evidence unearthed by a reporter for Dragon TV, a Shanghai-based television station, while undercover at the Shanghai subsidiary of Illinois-based OSI, a long time global supplier of major international fast food restaurant chains that include McDonald's and KFC. (OSI has supplied McDonald's in China since 1992 and Yum! Brands, the parent company that owns KFC, since 2008.)

The ensuing scandal has quickly engulfed the China operations of McDonald's and KFC, two popular restaurant chains with over 2,000 and 4,400 locations in the country, respectively. Several state media outlets have pounced on what they now refer to as the yang kuaican -- or "foreign fast food" -- issue, with state agency Xinhua devoting a special section to what it calls "Stinky Meat-Gate." An article in nationalist state-run outlet Global Times quoted an online survey from an unspecified website, claiming that 68 percent of respondents would "never eat" McDonalds, KFC, or Subway again. Nationalistic blogger Song Zude even exhorted "all Chinese people to band together and say no to foreign trash food." But Song's call is probably going to go unanswered; in contrast to state media's very public hand-wringing, many Chinese consumers have seemed relatively unfazed.

That, at least, is the takeaway in the immediate aftermath of the news. Reporters for state-run China News Service found the Beijing outlets of McDonald's and KFC still crowded the day after the report broke. A man with the surname Lei told one reporter that he actually felt "more secure about food quality at McDonald's, now that it is in the middle of a publicity storm." Similarly, a report by Henan Radio in Zhengzhou, a city of 8 million in central Henan province, found that business at local McDonalds and KFC restaurants was "hopping" with long lines and few seats. One McDonald's patron admitted that she saw the news about the food scandal but was "already desensitized to this sort of thing."

The sad reality is that Chinese consumers find it difficult to trust any food establishment, which gives foreign ownership continuing credibility when it comes to quality control, scandal or no. Ma Xian, a real estate investor, wrote on Weibo, China's major micro-blogging platform, "I can't boycott Uncle McDonald's or KFC, because the food is also unsafe at other restaurants, or even less safe." Tong Guangcan, a lawyer based in eastern Jiangsu province, agreed: "McDonald's and KFC are still much better than the tiny food stalls on the street that use ‘gutter oil,'" used cooking oil that is sold or passed off as new.

Chinese citizens are shocked, of course, by the report's findings, but have directed a healthy dollop of their ire at state regulators. In recent months, authorities have pledged "stringent supervision" of food safety and considered revising the country's food safety laws. But observers feel the latest scandal belies those assurances. In response to state-run broadcaster China Central TV's July 20 Weibo post about the scandal the most popular comment read, "This year, we have relied entirely on the media to reveal problems of quality. The regulatory agency might as well just close." Another commenter wrote, "You can't just put responsibility for weak government regulating on McDonalds and KFC." Even the Global Times, in a July 22 English-language op-ed claiming that foreign fast food chains in China need a "new attitude," acknowledged the concerns about China's regulatory system, conceding that "quality oversight authorities are weak." Sensitive to this backlash, state media have been careful to highlight the speed with which government regulators have acted in response to the report.

McDonald's and Yum! have apologized to consumers, but that did not stop the firms' share prices from tumbling. For its part, OSI China released an apology stating that management is "appalled" by the report and believes it to be an "isolated incident." But a whistleblower from its quality control department produced two notebooks with details on each "expiration date extension," with a manager's signature next to each entry.

The China operations of McDonald's and KFC are likely to show some scars from the recent news; Yum!'s sales in China reportedly dropped 40 percent after a 2012 report that alleged that its chickens were pumped full of antibiotics, and are still recovering. But they are also almost certain to survive. Not only is the blame being spread far and wide, but these fast food chains offer something else to Chinese diners besides food. As one Weibo user wrote, "No matter what, the bathrooms at McDonald's and KFC are definitely a public utility," adding, "We can't live without them!" As long as Chinese consumers remain eager to get in the door, the chains' bosses can probably rest easy.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed writing and research.


Tea Leaf Nation

All Hail 'Fatty Kim the Third'

Chinese netizens love mocking North Korea's portly dictator. But it masks a deeper disdain.

It's North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un as the world has never seen him. In a three-minute clip that has accumulated over 200,000 views after its early July posting on Chinese video site Tudou, a crudely photoshopped Kim dances on the street, on a baseball diamond, and in a cornfield, at various moments accompanied by Barack Obama or Osama bin Laden. At one point, Kim has a fistfight in the mud with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The video ends with the portly dictator riding a pig into the horizon.

What's noteworthy about the video is not, as South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo wrote in late July, that North Korean authorities have ostensibly asked Beijing to take the clip down. Since the article merely cites "a source in China" to back that contention, the claim is impossible to verify. And it's also beside the point: Chinese censors, despite possessing both the power and the proclivity to sink their knives into domestic content contrary to the Chinese Communist Party line, have evinced little interest in extirpating anti-North Korean content from Chinese cyberspace, where Kim is often called jin sanpang, meaning "fatty Kim the third." In fact, a query for that term on Baidu, China's largest search engine, calls forth 15.7 million results -- proof positive of censors' indifference.

What the staggering accumulation of anti-North Korean sentiment illustrates, however, is that criticizing North Korea -- particularly its portly young leader Kim -- is a popular trend on the Chinese web.

Recent history is one factor: Kim's December 2011 assumption of his throne roughly coincides with the rise of Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform that allows users to remix images, share video, and generally make vicious sport of almost any target. But it's also because Kim's regime has delivered multiple provocations that almost seem calculated to elicit online disdain. After the North's April 2012 failure to launch its much-ballyhooed Kwangmyongsong No. 3 missile, for example, netizens mocked the regime as inept. Later that month, Chinese film director Zhang Zhou famously touched up the official portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with lipstick and light rouge.

In May 2012, Sino-North Korean relations nosedived after press reports in China and the West stated that North Koreans captured 29 Chinese fishermen who were working in Chinese territorial waters and held them for ransom for over a week before releasing them. That bizarre move prompted Chinese netizens to criticize the North as a "terrorist" regime -- but also to lambast their own government for acting as a "vassal state" with aims of "appeasing" their neighbor.

Relations took a further hit in February 2013, after North Korea conducted its third-ever nuclear weapons test. Web users reacted angrily, with even erstwhile half-defenders like state-run Global Times editor Hu Xijin critiquing the North's "wrong path." Among the tens of millions of North Korea-related Weibo comments at that time were those lambasting Kim as an "evildoer," a drug dealer, and the "greatest threat to China's national security."

Even now, in the absence of any notable high-level friction, grassroots Chinese contempt for their hermetic neighbor is surprisingly easy to find. On July 20, when Chinese state television's Weibo account shared images of a smiling Kim watching a soccer match, one commenter quickly asked Kim "whether your citizens can all get as fat as you" when they are "nearly starving."

But online satire has not obscured manifestations of genuine Chinese concern for the suffering of ordinary North Koreans. In February 2012, the mass arrest of 30 North Korean defectors in China and their reported subsequent repatriation spurred online anger at what many commentators viewed as de facto "murder" by their own government. Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website, contains a lengthy discussion on Chinese treatment of defectors, and the most popular answer condemns a "family in sin" and an "evil rule," an apparent reference to the dynastic Kim clan.

Criticism of North Korea's tyranny, even that delivered with a webby, satirical wrapping, is juiced by a tacit understanding that China could easily have taken the same path. After all, the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea was established in 1948, just over a year prior to the People's Republic of China, and both regimes featured egomaniacal and ruinously ideological Communist strongmen at their respective helms. Chinese are acutely aware that but for the death of Mao's son Anying during the Korean War in 1950, and the elder Mao's subsequent failure to anoint a successor who matched his anti-market zeal, modern China could be in far worse shape than the reformed version that exists today. Or as one Weibo user wrote, addressing North Korea, "Your existence is what causes us never to forget what Mao Zedong brought us." The North's bad example, he explained, allows Chinese citizens to "get a clear view of history, look at our past, and think on our foolishness." Perhaps the creator of the latest viral Kim video wants the same thing.

tt.mop.com/ Fair Use