Beijing’s Food Insecurities
China’s counterfactual campaign to blame COVID-19 transmission on Western meat reflects Beijing’s long-standing ambitions and insecurities related to Great Power status and food. What might appear to be an erroneous theory rejected by scientific consensus – Beijing’s claims that imported frozen meat served as an important transmitter of COVID-19 – in fact reveals that Beijing is sensitive to criticism of the quality and security of China’s food supplies, and responds to such criticism by mirroring it back to the United States.
Doubts About Great Power Status
Beijing has responded to U.S. criticism of China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic by replicating and reversing the criticism:
– Chinese leaders responded to U.S. officials’ identification of a Wuhan virology lab as a likely origin site for COVID-19 by advancing the theory that the virus originated at a virology lab at Fort Detrick.1
– Beijing’s inversion of American criticism also extends into the role of international organizations: China responded to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigations in Wuhan with calls for the WHO to probe the possibility that the virus originated in the United States.2
– In response to the West’s early identification of a Wuhan wet market as the most likely source of the virus outbreak, China blamed Western meat.3 This reverses the criticism: according to Beijing, it is not Chinese meat, but Western meat that is contaminated.
Beijing’s deflection of criticism back at the United States suggests that China perceives U.S. behavior as a template for how a Great Power should behave. This pattern raises questions about Beijing’s confidence in its own Great Power status and can provide external observers a framework for interpreting Beijing’s behavior even beyond pandemic-related topics.
Domestic Insecurities About Food
China’s efforts to divert attention from Chinese wet markets reflect historical insecurities around dietary practices in China. Regardless of the role that the Wuhan Institute of Virology played in sparking the pandemic, early narratives about wet markets raised important questions about food. Core elements of Chinese cuisine are incompatible with those of neighboring populations, some of whom have criticized elements of the Chinese diet as “unclean.”4 These differences have become a political issue in China as Beijing has sought to impose the Chinese diet upon ethnic minority populations, most prominently in Xinjiang.5 Beijing’s politicization of dietary practices may have exacerbated China’s sensitivity to contemporary Western criticism of Chinese meat markets.6
Internal tensions around dietary practices may further heighten China’s discomfort with foreign criticism of the Chinese diet. Domestic tension around differences between northern and southern Chinese cuisines surfaced most prominently following the 2003 SARS outbreak, whose origin was attributed to food markets in southern China.7 The outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, a city standing astride the north and south of China, echoes the same tension: through the gateway of Wuhan, southern China once more exposed a deadly virus to northern China and beyond.8
Regional dynamics within the Han core of China may be a blind spot for U.S. analysts. During the past decade, U.S. policy discussion about China – as measured by Congressional hearings and statements, administration activity, and think tank research – has only rarely explored regional dynamics within the Han core of China. As Beijing continues its efforts to homogenize China, internal fissures could become increasingly important to U.S. policy makers and strategists.
Ambitions For Food Self-Sufficiency
Beijing’s targeting of Western meat imports are part of a longer-term series of attacks on Western food distributors intended to advance greater food self-sufficiency. China’s campaign is multi-dimensional: it has included the acquisition of Western food producers, impediments to the local presence of Western grocery chains, and previous bans on Western meat imports.9 In retaliation for Canada’s 2018 arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, for example, China placed bans on Canadian pork and beef, falsely alleging traces of a prohibited animal feed additive.10
Long-standing anxieties regarding supply chains inform China’s efforts to expand control over domestic food supply chains. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, China treated advanced logistics and distribution systems as threats for their capacity to facilitate domestic rebellions.11 This fear led the central government to seek complete control over domestic supply chains and to avoid developing advanced logistics networks.12 Influenced by this past anxiety, China has recognized its dependence on food imports – a geographic reality because domestic consumption far exceeds supply capacity – as a strategic liability.13 To mitigate the risks of this dependence, China has sought to expand control over the operations and logistics of food distribution. The dominance by U.S. and European companies of global express shipping likely aggravates China’s anxieties around supply chains.14
China’s efforts to increase domestic food production via the expansion of arable land risk exacerbating ethnic tensions. To address China’s shortage of arable land, Beijing has worked to advance agricultural development in arid plains in northern and western China, in areas such as Xinjiang, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia.15 These efforts likely have intensified ethnic tensions: land is frequently given to Han Chinese, who are provided with farm equipment, grants, and other subsidies to incentivize farming.16
China’s enduring insecurities around food are unlikely to be affected by international scrutiny of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and can be expected to continue to drive attacks on Western companies in food-related industries, including agriculture, food production, wholesale, retail, grocery, and shipping and logistics. For example, Western restaurant chains that have experienced success in China thus far risk becoming attractive political targets to Beijing as Chinese restaurant chains have failed to enjoy corresponding success in Western markets.17 China’s underlying challenges appear to be long-term: geographical limitations present a structural obstacle to China securing food self-sufficiency through an increase in domestic production. This leaves greater control of food operations and distribution as Beijing’s primary near-term recourse for increasing food self-sufficiency.
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1 Chinese state-run media has explicitly linked these competing theories, as articulated in a May 2020 Global Times article: “Experts slammed the US for its evasive, ostrich-like attitude towards the rising voices calling for a … Fort Detrick, Maryland investigation, while slandering a laboratory in China’s Wuhan city for ‘originating’ the coronavirus.” See: Huang Lanlan and Li Lei, “The Fort Detrick horror: a closer look at the US’ largest biochemical weapons research center,” Global Times, May 29, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189967.shtml.
2 Jeremy Page and Drew Hinshaw, “China Says COVID-19 Origin Probe Should Shift Focus to Other Countries,” The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-says-covid-19-origin-probe-should-shift-focus-to-other-countries-11617186625.
3 “GT Investigates: Will cold-chain imports trigger new wave of COVID-19 in China?” Global Times, November 29, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208427.shtml. Chinese scientists have released several studies pointing to cold-chain contamination of COVID-19, concluding in one recent study that “the COVID-19 resurgence in Beijing was likely to be initiated by an environment-to-human transmission originated from contaminated imported food via cold-chain logistics” and advising that “regional guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and control should integrate surveillance of cold-chain imported products, especially those from epidemic regions of COVID-19.” See: Xinghuo Pang et al., “Cold-chain food contamination as the possible origin of COVID-19 resurgence in Beijing,” National Science Review, Volume 7, Issue 12 (2020): pages 1861-1864, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwaa264. For further reporting on Beijing’s cold-chain contamination theory, see Sha Hua, “China Floats Covid-19 theories that point to foreign origins, frozen food,” The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-pushes-alternative-theories-about-origin-of-covid-19-11607445463.
4 Muslim populations in northwestern China have long criticized Chinese consumption of pork. For a historical example of this criticism, see Francesca French and Mildred Cable, The Gobi Desert, London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1942, page 72. Tibetans also have criticized Chinese dietary practices, including the mass consumption and slaughter of yaks. For example, see: “Growing anti-slaughter movement against Chinese commercial slaughterhouses in Tibet,” International Campaign for Tibet, August 26, 2020, https://savetibet.org/growing-anti-slaughter-movement-against-chinese-commercial-slaughterhouses-in-tibet.
5 Qiao Long, “Chinese Officials Force Muslims to Drink, Eat Pork at Festival,” Radio Free Asia, February 6, 2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/festival-02062019140637.html.
6 PRC – including public – sensitivity to Western criticism around diet is highlighted in a 2020 Global Times article: “Some Guangzhou [a city in Guangdong] locals who love to eat seafood said the US should pay attention to its own mess, and not lecture China on what to do.” See: Yang Sheng, “GT Exclusive: Guangdong authorities clamp down on wildlife trade after SARS stigma,” Global Times, April 14, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185526.shtml.
7 As described in Chinese media, a common Chinese saying is that the people of China’s southern Guangdong province will “eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies, except airplanes.” See: “Cantonese cuisine,” China Daily, January 5, 2011, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2011-01/05/content_11798716.htm. The saying may be particularly common in northern China, suggesting an attitude critical of southern cuisine. See: Nadine Koerner, A Chinese Cookbook for Happiness and Success, Germany: epubli GmbH, 2014; “Police struggle to crack down on China’s appetite for anything with four legs,” New Zealand Herald, May 1, 2006, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/police-struggle-to-crack-down-on-chinas-appetite-for-anything-with-four-legs/F6G7QCGM7N7XJBH2OWLKFP5YUM. Guangdong residents faced particular criticism for these culinary practices following SARS, as detailed in an April 2020 Global Times article: “People in Guangdong were stigmatized and blamed for ‘spreading SARS’ due to their special food culture of eating wildlife animals.” See: Sheng, ibid.
8 Horseshoe bats, the bat species from which COVID-19 is believed to have transmitted to humans, are located in southern, not northern, China. See: “Origins of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus: China Part,” World Health Organization, March 30, 2021, https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus/origins-of-the-virus; “Chinese rufous Horseshoe Bat,” The Darwin Initiative Centre for Bat Research, University of Bristol, 2008, http://www.bio.bris.ac.uk/research/bats/China%20bats//index.htm.
9 Jennifer Wang, “The Chinese Billionaire Whose Company Owns Troubled Pork Processor Smithfield Foods,” Forbes, April 16, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferwang/2020/04/16/the-chinese-billionaire-whose-company-owns-troubled-pork-processor-smithfield-foods.
10 Amanda Connolly, “China is lifting its ban on Canadian pork, beef exports: Trudeau,” Global News, November 5, 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/6129666/china-pork-beef-ban-canada.
11 China’s historical aversion to developing a strong system of transportation is detailed by Owen Lattimore in a 1940 account: “It was to the interest of the Chinese in Sinkiang… to keep the rate of movement along lines of communication slow as to hinder both invasion from the outside and the spread of insurrection within the province.” See: Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, New York: American Geographical Society, 1940, page 189.
12 In the following passage, Percy T. Etherton, a British officer who wrote numerous works on the geopolitics of Central and Eastern Asia, observes that the Chinese army chooses to grow crops locally instead of building out a logistics chain during their reconquest of Xinjiang from the warlord of Yakub Beg in the 1870s. This approach was chosen over improving transportation, even though the process takes years: “As long as they were in a more or less inhabited area, the army lived on the country, but once beyond the confines of comparative civilisation [sic.] this was no longer possible, for no supply and transport service existed … But General Tang was equal to the occasion. He collected and halted his scattered and roving army, marked out the ground around their camps into plots, the sword, gun, and lance were laid aside, and in their place were taken up the spade and plough. The ground was prepared, seeds of cereals and vegetables were sown, and in the fulness of time the crops were garnered, and with renewed supplies the army resumed its march, the same procedure being adopted in the following year, until the goal was reached and Turkistan again brought under the Imperial sway.” See: Percy T. Etherton, In the Heart of Asia, London: Constable & Co., 1926, pages 50-51.
13 China has one-fifth of the world’s population, but less than 10 percent of the world’s arable land. See: Loro Horta, “Chinese Agriculture Goes Global,” YaleGlobal Online, December 16, 2014, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/chinese-agriculture-goes-global.
14 Chinese state-run media has attacked leading Western shippers for local coronavirus outbreaks. For example, a November 2020 Global Times article attributed a local COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai to infected UPS and FedEx employees. See: “UPS and FedEx Employees at Shanghai Pudong International Airport tested positive for COVID-19,” Global Times, November 11, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1207805.shtml.
15 Andreas Wilkes and Lanying Zhang, “Stepping stones towards sustainable agriculture in China,” International Institute for Environment and Development, March 2016, https://pubs.iied.org/sites/ default/files/pdfs/migrate/14662IIED.pdf.
16 “China: Han migrant influx threatens Uyghur farms,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, March 11, 2013, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5190dc793ce.html; Madeleine Lovelle, “China: Xinjiang, Agriculture and the Uighur Population,” Future Directions International, May 3, 2018, https://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/china-xinjiang-agriculture-uighur-population.
17 Most prominently, Luckin Coffee was delisted from Nasdaq in 2020. See: “Luckin Coffee Receives Delisting Notice from Nasdaq for Failure to File its Annual Report,” June 23, 2020, Luckin Coffee, https://investor.luckincoffee.com/news-releases/news-release-details/luckin-coffee-receives-delisting-notice-nasdaq-failure-file-its.