Tag Archives: Government

Southern Weekend on “Secret” Organic Food Supplies for Government Departments

It’s no secret that food safety is a huge problem in China right now. And while it may be a “secret”, it’s really no secret that the government gets its food from walled-off supply compounds where guaranteed organic produce is grown and shipped several times per week to the relevant departments. Perhaps in light of the recent high-profile food disasters, though, the government is feeling a little touchy, because this investigative report by Southern Weekend reporters was quickly deleted from their website. Luckily, Baidu cache has preserved a copy (at least for now). (h/t to Twitter users BendiLaowai, Kinablog and Vocui for the story and above links).

Also via BendiLaowai, a poignant reminder of the kind of food quality problems that exist for regular folks. Melamine milk parent Zhao Lianhai recently tweeted this message about another parent’s child who is still suffering from the contaminated milk scandal that covered the front pages several years ago:

“Zhou Xiong’s child Zhou Yizhe’s situation is very bad, one of the kidneys has already shriveled to the point that it’s totally gone, and the other required surgery, so the child is now living, but in pain. The kid’s future is also very unclear, I invite more people to pay attention to their case and to help out.”

What follows is a partial and very quick-and-dirty translation of the Southern Weekend article mentioned above. If I get time later, I will try to fill in more. Check the original Chinese when in doubt; as I said, I had to do a pretty rushed job on this one.


Two meter walls and iron railings on four sides, five PSB officers standing guard…if locals hadn’t informed us, it would have been very difficult to find this place, called the “big customs shack,” ((“海关大棚” any ideas on a better way to translate this?)) and it would have been even harder to figure out that it was a special storehouse of vegetables for Beijing Customs [officials]. The full name of the “big customs shack” is “Beijing Customs Vegetable Base and Countryside Social Club.” It covers over 200 mu of land in Beijing’s Shunyi district.

Insiders said that the base has been working with Beijing Customs for more than ten years, and that vegetables from here are only provided to Beijing Customs. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday a truck from Beijing Customs comes and takes away produce. Each load consists of at least 1000 jin of vegetables. The “big customs shack” is only one of many bases that provide the government with a special supply of food, and according to what a Southern Weekend reporter has learned, Customs isn’t the only department with a base in Beijing’s Shunyi District. Provincial-level governments across the country [also] have their own special food suppliers.

These special food products can be called truly “green” ((i.e. organic)) food, and their “safety” is paramount. On May 1, 2011, a Southern Weekend reporter penetrated the tight security of the “big customs shack”.

Entering the door and passing by some flower beds, you can see a reception area that looks exactly like a villa from the outside. Glass windows reach down to the ground, and a fish pond sits nearby. Green surrounds it on every side, and peach and pear trees are already ripe with fruit.

Inside the base, 64 rows of vegetable shacks are neatly arranged. By the door of each shack is a room for one worker, furnished with a simple bed and a stool. On the wall is a poster that reads: “Use safe intervals in the application of pesticides to produce vegetables.”

Between the two large shed groupings to the east and west, there is a drainage ditch that runs north-south and a path for freight trucks to pass through for shipping the vegetables. Aside from a few workers from the Northeast, the rest of the workers at the base are all local. Generally, one worker tends to four sheds and if they’re not there, the doors to the sheds are locked.

In the industry, it is frequently said that farmers don’t eat the crops they grow because the crops are grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But the workers at the “big customs shack” slap their chests and guarantee, there’s definitely no problem [eating these vegetables], “we grew them all ourselves so relax!”

The Southern Weekend reporter saw “big customs shack workers picking cucumbers and eating them without washing them, or even disposing of the burrs, they just bit right in. ((This may be somewhat inaccurate as I know nothing about growing cucumbers; in any event the point here is that the workers were eating vegetables straight out of the ground without worrying about washing off any chemicals.))

To prevent chemical contamination, nearly all of the fertilizer [at the base] is organic fertilizer, the excrement of chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep. Even when pesticides are used, they are organic pesticides […] “What we plant are all green, environmentally harmless vegetables,” a person at the base told the Southern Weekend reporter. These vegetables include cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, winter squash, string beans, cabbage, spinach, Chinese cabbage, and other common greens. “Whatever we plant, they (Beijing Customs officials) want.”

Special food supplies: Not just in Beijing.

Actually, the “big customs shack” is just one example of a special food supply [for the government]. These supply stores are not just in Beijing, and they aren’t just for fruits and vegetables, either.

One method for maintaining a special supply of food is that some departments own a special plot of land, and all the crops grown in this area are used in the dining areas of the government departments. A scholar who wished to remain anonymous told Southern Weekend that two years ago when he was eating a meal at the Shaanxi Supreme Court’s dining area, he was told by someone in the industry that the Court had its own official farm thirty kilometers outside of Xi’an, in Hu County. The farm had special managers who guaranteed that all the fruits and vegetables were completely free of contaminants and safe to eat.



The article continues with a number of other specific examples, a brief investigation into the history of special food supplies in the PRC, and a discussion of how suppliers of these special food centers can use that status to ensure their products sell for higher prices in the regular food markets, as well.

A Minor Inconvenience

While we were up in dongbei shooting a documentary last month, we ran into this situation completely unintentionally. We walked to this street, Kedong’s main thoroughfare, in the hopes of catching a cab, only to discover there were no cars on the road. We shot a good bit of it; here’s what happened:

Passing of the Governor from ChinaGeeks on Vimeo.

I didn’t bother editing this video for color or anything, but it’s not going into the documentary, so I thought it might be worth sharing and discussing here. Obviously, as official transgressions go, this is quite insignificant. And it wasn’t a huge hassle for us to wait half an hour before being allowed to cross the road, since we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be anyway.

I’m posting this because I think it’s indicative, more than anything, of an attitude that plagues Chinese officials. How much of an inconvenience would it really have been for the provincial governor to drive through town with other cars still on the road? Surrounded by an army of police cars and with police standing guard up and down the street, he certainly wasn’t in any physical danger. And it’s not like Kedong, which has remarkably wide streets for its tiny population, was going to have a traffic jam at three in the afternoon.

I’m also wondering what people think. In the evening, I mentioned this to the family that I was staying with, some of whom are devout government supporters, expecting them to say that the governor deserved special treatment. To my surprise, not a single one of them said that. “You should have filmed it so you can post it online and expose him,” someone said. Everyone agreed that closing the road for hours so that the governor could drive through Kedong (a process that took about 30 seconds, as you can see in the video) was ridiculous, and they wondered why I was told not to film it (it’s not like they were trying to travel undercover, after all…)

So what do you think?

Guest Post: On the Development of Chinese Government

The following is a guest post.

Some Thoughts on the Development of Chinese Government

By Colin Glassey – August 21, 2009

One element of Chinese government which has been poorly presented in English is the way the Chinese system of Imperial government can be viewed as a system that evolved – slowly and fitfully – over 2,000 years. Far from being a monolithic or unchanging system there was change in the Imperial system from beginning to end. The change was driven not only by external forces but was also caused by the Emperors and their powerful advisors with the aid of the official historians who periodically wrote "report cards" about the strengths and failings of the previous dynasty in the form of official histories.

It is fair to say that most of the changes in the Imperial system of China were largely human directed changes based on a careful analysis of lessons from the past. This "evolution based on the examples of history" is nearly unique in governments (until the American revolutionaries consciously created their new government in the late 1780s). By sharp contrast, the European "method" (if one can call it such) for improving governments was "survival of the fittest". In other words, in Europe, states with good governments "ate" states with less effective systems and so, over time, good governments survived, and bad ones disappeared. (And yes, this is a gross generalization which slights people like Caesar Augustus, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, etc.).

The period of greatest change was usually at the start of a new dynasty as the new Emperor felt singularly unconstrained by the examples and precedent of the past. Based on my reading of Chinese history the following major periods of change are seen:

  1. The creation of the first system by the First Emperor (Shi Huang Di): circa 215 B.C.E. Powerful and effective in the short term but in many ways a failure and condemned by later historians and thinkers. Despite the failures, in broad outlines, the Imperial system of the first Emperor continued for hundreds of years into the Han.
  2. The Han of Emperor Wu Di: circa 90 B.C.E. This marks the point where Confucian ideology gained official (and permanent) approval as the ideology of Chinese government. The Legalist school of the First Emperor was officially "dead".
  3. The response to the Wang Mang usurpation: circa 30 C.E. Wang Mang, a top official took over and ruled for some 13 years. The new "Eastern" Han made a number of changes to prevent any future "Wang Mang" events from happening.
  4. The founding of the Sui Dynasty: circa 585 C.E. Following the collapse of the Han and hundreds of years of warfare between the successor states, the Sui created a new system of government that made significant modifications to the Han system.
  5. The response to the rebellion of An Lushan: circa 810. An Lushan's rebellion nearly destroyed the Tang and only gradually did the Imperial court figure out ways to reassert authority over the provinces. The reforms were not successful but they laid the groundwork for the Song.
  6. The Song founding: circa 965. The Song instituted major – and very long lasting – changes to the Imperial system based on the failure of the Tang government. In many ways the Song system was a remarkable achievement. All later imperial systems were based on the Song.
  7. The Ming founding: circa 1390. The Ming founder was one of the great political thinkers in history and while he kept a great deal of the Song system, he made many changes and then he tried to make them permanent by creating a book of "Ancestral Injunctions" – in some respects this was the first Constitution of China. Political change in the Ming after his death was glacial due to his efforts (for better and for worse).
  8. The Manchu (Qing) government of the Kangxi Emperor: circa 1680. This was the final form of the Imperial system, a hybrid of the Ming system with special Manchu elements grafted on. It corrected some of the obvious problems with the Ming system and it allowed China to expand territorially and economically to the greatest extent in its history.

These eight periods of government change are somewhat inaccurate. To talk about change at these points while ignoring the gradual changes that occurred at other times within the Song or Ming dynasties is – clearly – a generalization. Hopefully the benefits outweigh the costs.

Rating the degree and importance of the changes that occurred is also fraught with guesswork and error. However, in broad terms this is what happened:

  1. The First Emperor (Shi Huang Di) took the government of his home state of Chin (Qin) and imposed it on the other states that he conquered (Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu). He set up the basic form of Imperial government. You can't get a bigger "change" than this.
  2. Emperor Wu Di formally accepted the principals of Confucianism in his management of the state. A small change, a mere matter of philosophy, and yet, profound in its implications.
  3. The usurpation of Wang Mang resulted in the rise to power of the direct Imperial family members at the top level of decision-making, especially the male relatives of the mother of the Emperor. Again, a fairly small change but the fall of the Han can be directly traced to this change.
  4. The Sui took their hybrid Chinese/Northern Horse Lord system and imposed it on the whole of China. For a time, women had real power and the Emperor was a military figure. This was a major change in Imperial government.
  5. The An Lushan rebellion forced the Imperial government into a wrenching and long lasting turn away from military power as the basis of the government and towards giving all real power to the educated elite. This was a small change to the system, and none of the Tang emperors were able to fully implement it.
  6. The Song completed the transition started by the Tang and implemented the world's first "modern" government: a bureaucracy based on merit. There is a great deal to admire about the Song system but their military ineffectiveness is a major weakness. This was a huge change to the Imperial system.
  7. The Ming tried to correct the problems of the Song – military leadership becoming a hereditary class, the Emperor by law forced to remain at the center of the government, etc. The problems with the Ming were subtle and took hundreds to years to manifest fully. The importance of the Ming changes grow upon careful reflection.
  8. The Manchu (Qing) in turn tried to correct the weaknesses of the Ming system with a new hereditary military class, the "Banner system", and an expansionist attitude towards their northern and western neighbors. Under the three great Manchu emperors China was the largest, richest, and most powerful state in the world. The changes here were actually quite small. In a real sense the Ming could have "become" the Manchu if they had wanted to.

One could argue that the changes in the Imperial system seem fairly small. The differences between the Egyptian Pharonic system, the Athenian Democracy, and the Roman Republic (to take three European governments) are probably greater than any of the differences in the Chinese Imperial system from beginning to end. So – from the perspective of people schooled in huge differences found in European systems of government over 4,000 years of history – the changes in the Chinese Imperial system could be thought of as of little consequence. I believe the changes are very interesting, because I see the modifications as conscious efforts to correct the mistakes of the past on the path toward making a more perfect government, much like we see modern governments trying to react "intelligently" to changes in the world around them. In this limited way, the Chinese governmental changes exhibit a modern mind-set.

I will go futher and argue that the Chinese Imperial government improved over the centuries. At the least, they fixed problems that led to serious breakdowns in earlier years. The Imperial system in its final form was far from a perfect government but it was a system I believe we in the present day can learn from.