Hu Jintao's Kennedy Moment

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China flawlessly executed a manned space flight. Now, imagine if the country put that same effort into improving the food supply.  

china rocket.JPGReuters

In any given week, China is capable of dazzling the world with its achievements while simultaneously undermining such progress by disappointing its own people. This was that kind of a week. 

By all accounts, it has been an historic week for China, laden with several firsts. Not only did Beijing successfully complete its first manned space docking mission, the mission carried along the first Chinese female astronaut Liu Yang, a veteran air force pilot. For a Communist Party that has always held grandiose technological ambitions, this was an indisputable triumph. And it did so by reflecting the Maoist ideal of gender equality captured in the commonly recited phrase "women hold up half the sky." For President Hu Jintao, whose decadal reign saw a less harmonious society, he can at least claim credit for having engineered a "Kennedy moment" by decisively taking China into the majestic heavenly ether. It is true, however, that the moon-shot plan was hatched under the previous administration, but the space program's repeated successes registered under Hu's watch will surely define a central part of his political legacy.

Although China is a latecomer to the space game by about 40 years, the sense of rapturous wonder that once captivated Apollo mission audiences in the U.S. is palpable among the Chinese public today. The official press, predictably, issued paean after paean about the momentous launch. And like all initiatives grand in scale, its success serves as an occasion to rally around the flag and inspire patriotism. (Not to mention the effusive praise of the Communist Party's achievement conveniently takes the political transition and Bo Xilai off the front pages, for a while at least.) There is reason for China to be proud of the accomplishment precisely because the program, unlike the high-speed rail, was approached methodically and has a proven track record of success. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker puts it thusly

Over the last decade, China has moved with purpose, putting its first person into space, completing an inaugural spacewalk, and launching two lunar orbiters. But it is not doing anything rash; the pace, four missions in four years, is a stately one. "China's careful, sustainable approach cannot be compared to some early Soviet 'firsts,' which took safety shortcuts in order to achieve politically-timed space spectaculars,"accordingto Andrew Erickson, of the U.S. Naval War College. "By working on its own terms, on its own time, Beijing is building for the future."

As the Chinese public and outside world marveled at the Shenzhou-9 liftoff -- inevitably inviting comparisons to the declining U.S. space program -- pride evaporated and gave way to the old cynicism as revelations within China came to light. It turns out that the astronauts have been feted with organic food from an exclusive farm that boasts free-range chickens and "sleek and glossy haired" cows that are hormone free, according to the Chinese newspaper Beijing News.

69177598.jpgBejing News

The exclusivity of said farm (pictured above) is not surprising. In fact, they are quite common. That is, if you are fortunate enough to be counted among the elites and officialdom who have access to such gourmet feasts. As Barbara Demick of the LA Times reported on this phenomenon last year:

At a glance, it is clear this is no run-of-the-mill farm: A 6-foot spiked fence hems the meticulously planted vegetables and security guards control a cantilevered gate that glides open only to select cars.

"It is for officials only. They produce organic vegetables, peppers, onions, beans, cauliflowers, but they don't sell to the public," said Li Xiuqin, 68, a lifelong Shunyi village resident who lives directly across the street from the farm but has never been inside. "Ordinary people can't go in there."

So much for a classless, egalitarian society -- only astronauts and cadres can avail themselves of secretive supplies of natural, wholesome food. But what's supplied to ordinary Chinese? Tainted milk and irradiated pork. It is precisely this sort of privilege, entitlement, and social stratification that rile the Chinese public. And with the middle class' growing anxiety over rampant food safety violations, the "organic astronaut farm" story took on added salience, especially when juxtaposed against the splashy and expensive space program. Why not spend the money on fixing the food supply? From infant milk powder to the aptly named "gutter oil," the credibility of authentic and unadulterated food is in shambles. There is reason to believe that the reality may be much worse than what has already been exposed, so claims Caixin magazine. There is simply too much opacity to grasp the true extent of the problem. Meanwhile, mainland mothers can trek to Hong Kong to buy legitimate infant formula, which many Hong Kong vendors seem to deliberately display in front of the store to attract mainland buyers.

For a country rightfully proud of its preeminent food culture -- a major source of its soft power -- these gastronomic malfeasance are socially and politically damaging. Of course food scandals and contamination aren't unique to China, but the potential scale and rampant violations put China in a different category. It is ironic that for a government perennially preoccupied with the ability to feed 1.3 billion mouths, it has made eating a riskier proposition. Eating holds a unique position in the Chinese psyche -- not least because many Chinese still recall a period of mass starvation. And so as a matter of public policy, the government's credibility on food is no trivial matter. At this point, it is not earning much credibility on this issue.

The Communist Party may have decisively taken China into the 21st century space age this week, but on the home front, its crumbling food system seems to resemble the age that Upton Sinclair documented at the beginning of the last century. How can a country that is poised to build a space station still tolerate a broken food system? That is a question many Chinese are asking these days.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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