The 'Capitalist Germs' Lurking in McDonald's Meat

What's the latest Chinese fast-food scandal really about?
A Big Mac looms in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

BEIJING—In China’s capital of 20 million people, an empty McDonald’s is a strange sight to behold.

Here, McDonald’s—ubiquitous, brightly lit, and clamorously busy late into the night—has little left to sell. The Big Macs that usually fly off metal chutes into soft paper bags are missing. The Chinese teenagers who flock to the stores with their friends to buy after-school snacks must make do with other treats.

Over the past two weeks, a major food-safety scandal has emerged over the alleged sale of expired meat to fast-food retailers like McDonald’s by Shanghai Husi Food Company, which is owned by the American company OSI Group. It has led to product withdrawals, the arrest of several executives, the shunning of certain meat suppliers, and a national media frenzy, as well as searing warnings from officials and intellectuals about food sold at international brands like Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald’s (one former minister condemned OSI for having “no moral baseline”). These statements join other recent denunciations of Western culture, including the Communist Party memo known as Document No. 9 and a recent article in the People’s Daily, written by a professor at the Central Party School, which cautioned that “Western hostile forces” were waging “a battle without gunpowder smoke."

It’s easy to interpret the latest uproar over stale meat as just another chapter in China’s ongoing food-safety crisis. High-profile incidents involving melamine-laced milk powder and insecticide-tainted dumplings have led to immense public anxiety about food safety (there are no confirmed reports so far of people actually getting sick from the expired meat—in contrast to the many fatalities and serious illnesses accompanying earlier food-safety scandals). The passage of new laws and a China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) have helped address some of these problems, but the system remains deeply flawed and enforcement is weak. Indeed, in 2007, the former head of the CFDA’s predecessor institution was executed for taking bribes.

Some of the public declarations this time around may reflect understandable disappointment; if the food products sold at Western fast-food chains with international standards aren’t safe, then it’s hard to imagine what is. But the hype also suggests that some in China are seizing on an opportunity to demonize the incursions of Western culture into the country—tapping into a much deeper dynamic in Chinese society that has run through the entire era of “reform and opening.”

In this case, the dynamic centers around the “Western” origins of fast food and the pernicious changes to the Chinese diet and culinary culture that fast food seems to have brought with it. And it connects with some of the most traumatic episodes in the reform era after 1978, including the notorious campaigns against Westernization and “spiritual pollution” in the 1980s that rejected Western economics (capitalism, markets), culture, and political systems. Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader at the time, began to call for “opening” to the West, yet China’s leaders remained—and remain—deeply ambivalent about all things Western, including ideas and products.

When fast food first appeared in China in the late 1980s, Chinese consumers greeted it with enthusiasm—but conservative Communist Party elders saw “bourgeois sugar-coated bullets” in foreign products like fries and hamburgers. Theoreticians like Deng Liqun and Hu Qiaomu warned of infection by “capitalist germs” that lurked, invisible but potent, inside Western culture and lifestyles.

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Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he is a doctoral candidate in modern Chinese history.

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