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.

The first Western fast-food establishment to open in Beijing was Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which began operations in November 1987. By early 1989, commentators were investigating the symbolism of KFC in the People’s Daily, China’s state-run organ. “Eating KFC has become a new vogue in Beijing,” wrote journalist Zhu Jianhong. “In my opinion, on a deeper level, I’m afraid it’s equivalent to eating American culture.”

Later that year, students took to the streets of Beijing and Tiananmen Square to call for political reform. The protesters’ “conference hall” was located at the southwestern corner of the square—in Beijing’s oldest Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Communist Party leadership under Deng eventually decided to brand these students “counterrevolutionaries” who had been infected by “bourgeois liberalism,” and launched one of the most brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators in modern history.

Western fast food survived the crackdown, however, and within a few years official attitudes again warmed toward Western imports. McDonald’s was even allowed to set up shop in China. What was then the world’s largest McDonald’s—with seats for 700 people—opened its doors in Beijing in April 1992 and served 40,000 customers on its first day. The market for American fast food has boomed ever since. By the end of 2013, KFC had 4,563 restaurants in China, its second-largest market after the United States (Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and Pizza Hut, relies on China for more than half of its revenue). McDonald’s reported last year that it was opening 10 restaurants a week in China. For many Chinese consumers, this “localization of Americana” at restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC, in the words of anthropologist Yunxiang Yan, is one of the food’s selling points; “eating at McDonald's was a significant culinary and cultural experience,” he writes about the chain’s early years in the country.

But it is precisely the fact that Western fast-food chains in China remain a “cultural” experience that has made them a contentious symbol of the “capitalist germs” threatening Chinese society. McDonald’s and KFC serve what conservative ideologues in the 1980s might have called “grease-coated bullets.”

As a result, campaigns against Western fast food—even when they are presented as health-oriented—have an ineluctable ideological dimension. Both current President Xi Jinping and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, have railed against what Hu called “international hostile forces” that seek to use culture to “infiltrate” China. In the past several years, reports about unsafe chicken and fake soy milk served at KFC and other chains have appeared in the Chinese media, actively pushed by state-run news outlets and government agencies, even though many of these claims have been debunked.

At a moment when China’s leadership has given conflicting signals about its intentions and desired orientation toward the West—a crackdown on activists and journalists, accompanied by ambitious plans for advancing the rule of law at this fall’s Fourth Plenum—even Big Macs have become a battleground.