China Rides the GMO Dragon If not for media figures picking a fight, the Chinese might never have heard of GMOs

In China, everything can be politics: food of course comes into it, more often than not, in an unexpected way.

In the most important Confucian cannon Analects, Confucius himself talks constantly about food, regarding what to eat, what not, how, when, why, with what sort of ritual, ethical and political significance involved, and so on. For instance, “while the meat offered in sacrifice to the king shall be consumed the same day, the meat offered in sacrifice to one’s ancestors shall be consumed in less than three days.” With the observance of rituals being the central part of Confucian system, the time difference in the meat consumption can be seen as pertinent to the social hierarchy of the time. On the other hand, some may be just common-sense comments, like the advice that “when the fish or meat goes bad, you should not eat.” Given his cultural prominence in history, however, these are all elevated to an integrated part of Confucianism. Articles and books have been written around the Confucian food discourse. Thinking of that statement made by the Song dynasty prime minister Zhao Pu (922-992), “Half of Analects will be enough for people to rule the country with,” we may find ourselves in a not-far-too-fetched position of talking about a political science of the food in China.

In another Confucian classic, Chronicle of Zuo, there is an intriguing example—almost like a New Historicist anecdote—of the blending of food and politics. During the spring and autumn period (approximately 771 to 476 BC), Prince Song of the Zheng State was known for his psychic food finger. (In the Chinese, the index finger is actually called food finger, a symbolic signifier in itself.) Whenever about to taste something extraordinarily delicious, his food finger would twitch in spite of itself. That day, he made a bet with his colleagues about it. It so happened that the King of the Zhen State had his chef make a handled and legged ding pot of mouth-watering turtle soup for his ministers to share. Upon hearing the food finger story, the king decided he would not let the prince enjoy the delicacy. Frustrated, the prince thrust his finger into the pot by force and licked the soup there and then. Afterward, he worried about the consequence, killed the king in a preemptive strike, and usurped the throne. The anecdote is historically significant in that the ding pot was symbolic of the king’s power, to put one’s finger into it carries the thematic of a power struggle at the top. Another example may be more straightforward direct to China’s food politics. In a decisive war to unify China, a Confucian statesman Li Yiji (268-204 BC), presented the most important strategic advice to the first emperor of the Han dynasty, “People take food as the heaven (of supreme importance),” which supposedly laid the successful foundation of the dynasty. The metaphor then developed into a household proverb, “People take food as (the) heaven, and safety comes first in food.”

Given the long history of the paramount significance of China’s food politics, it is surprising that the arrival of GM foods did not really grab national attention until as late as September 2013, in a dramatic debate online between two Internet celebrities, Fang Zhouzi and Cui Yongyuan, who, by profession, have surprisingly little to do with the subject.

But then it may appear not too surprising if we take into consideration the sociopolitical backdrop of modern Chinese history. For the most of the 20th century, the Chinese people, afflicted by wars and natural disasters, had too much to worry about keeping the wolf from the door; things coming to a head as the national economy collapsed through Mao’s political movement of “The Great Leap Forward,” when more than 30 million died of starvation in the three years of so-called “natural” disasters (1959-1961). So how could they have afforded to worry about whether it is GM food or not, as long as they considered themselves lucky to have something to eat?

In a decisive war to unify China, a Confucian statesman Li Yiji (268-204 BC), presented the most important strategic advice to the first emperor of the Han dynasty, “People take food as the heaven (of supreme importance),” which supposedly laid the successful foundation of the dynasty. The metaphor then developed into a household proverb, “People take food as (the) heaven, and safety comes first in food.”

Things changed with the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Nowadays, most Chinese people do not have to worry about having enough food on the table, but what has been worrying them is a different issue: that of food safety, expressed so concisely in the above-cited proverb. What with the political/ideological disillusion resulting from the Cultural Revolution and other political movements under the one-party system, and with the collapse of the general ethical/moral value system in consequence, “the socialism of China’s characteristics” turned “primitive capitalistic” as many began a relentless pursuit for money and profit. God is dead, everything is possible, and one food safety scandal after another happened in consequence, such as the salt fish sprayed with DDT, dough stick fried with gutter oil, rice paddy eels fed with hormones, milk powder contaminated with melamine, and the list could go on for much longer. Now it is not a matter of what or how to eat, but whether the food is edible at all, that is, whether the food is lethal. (Even Inspector Chen Cao, the incorrigible foodie hero of my Inspector Chen series, cannot help losing his nerve with the celebrated Wuxi specials on a dining table when he learns about the disastrous contamination of the lake in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake).

What made the food safety panic more difficult for the authorities to hush up was the people’s newly-gained, though still limited, access to the Internet. With the traditional media still officially controlled, people spread information and protest online even though their efforts were sometimes speedily, repeatedly silenced. Almost without exception, news of the food scandals broke first on the Internet, circulating at lightening speed impossible for the authorities to effectively cover up. For instance, in early 2013, more than 10,000 dead pigs were suddenly seen floating down the tribunes of the Huangpu River of Shanghai. The netizen-demanded investigation found that for all these years the pigs that had died of disease were processed into sausage for the market, and because of a recent crackdown on the illicit dead-pig traders, the farmers simply resorted to dumping the carcasses into the waterways, thus saving the cost of properly disposing them. Consumers were panicky. Shortly afterward, Shuanghui International, a Chinese meat company, bought Smith Foods, an American meat company for nearly $5 billion in May 2013. Not so much to acquire high technology or anything similar, but simply because Chinese consumers no longer consider domestic foods as reliable. If anything, the acquisition may serve as a footnote to the food safety crisis in China, as if an American label on the domestic pork might be able to make the difference. In fact, late in 2013, Britain had to restrict sales of powdered milk to Chinese parents intent on obtaining uncontaminated products for their babies.

Under the circumstances, the relative inattention to the initial introduction of GM food into China is understandable. People had other more immediate or serious things to worry about. The concern about unsafe, contaminated food overwhelmed any concern about GM foods.

It is not to say, of course, that the advent of GM foods was not without any controversies. In the light of the long tradition that “people take food as (the) heaven, and safety comes out first in food,” it is natural that people might have reservations about it. But the discussion of GM foods was heard mainly in the academic circles alone, and it was largely ignored in the public. It is far from being a topic of broad national interest.

If there is anything noteworthy at all, perhaps it is the whispered rumors of a conspiracy, suggesting that GM food, given its origin in the West, is meant to bring economic havoc to the Third World or developing countries, a status China used to claim itself. American companies like agrochemical giant Monsanto are condemned as evil, responsible for disastrous agricultural consequences, such as the wide use of genetically engineered soy in Argentina. However, views like that are not scientifically supported or proven, sounding more like propaganda of the die-hard leftist in the Cold War period, circulating only in very limited circles.

In the light of the back story given above, it is surprising, yet not surprising, that the debate over GM food broke out in the Internet, between Fang Zhouzi and Cui Yongyuan, which soon passionately followed and discussed nationwide.

Fang has a science background with his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Michigan State University, but he established himself as one of the earliest Chinese netizens with his own influential website New Threads, through which he launched forth, among other things, aggressive campaigns against allegations of academic fraud, exposing all kinds of fakery or fraud in China today. Soon anything or anybody could come to be his target: an emerging Chinese entrepreneur with fabricated credentials or a plagiarizing intellectual or anybody suspected of misrepresentation who came under his radar. Fang has his advantage in these crusades. His education enabled him to check into the areas inaccessible to others, and his website, with a large number of followers, put him in a convenient position to strike out. It did not take long before he became an all-around anti-fake champion rather than a popular scientific writer. Naturally, people had mixed opinions about his aggressive campaigns, particularly about his populist critiques of academic topics. But the social realities of the moment encouraged, even rewarded his efforts. Fang soon expanded his campaign to other aspects of dishonesty, like his battle against Han Han, a “prodigious” young writer and essayist online who rose to fame because of a literature competition, but Fang addressed the possibility of fraud in the competition in a “scientific way.” Fang also asserted that some of Han’s works were ghostwritten. As a result, Han hardly posted his micro blogging anymore. All that seemed only to have added to Fang’s visibility, so much so people almost forgot that he is a science writer.

But Fang himself did not forget about it. From time to time he would also try to speak with authority in his field. Along with others, he advocated the consumption of GM food, dispensing misinformation about the subject, as, after all, he had no academic credentials in genetic engineering. However, with his authority status, whatever he said seemed credible to some. So GM food, because of his endorsement, seemed therefore to be anything but fake.

On the whole, his argument is not that elaborate. One of the major points he made was that GMOs are regarded safe beyond dispute in the West, with the majority of scientists supporting it, and in contrast, only those without a science background challenge the safety of GM food. Since genetically engineered food is generally accepted and approved in the United States, why bother protesting such food in China?

Now there is one major factor bolstering Fang’s argument. As discussed earlier, the food safety panic of recent years is something of spiritual dilemma for the Chinese, who, after all, see food safety a little bit differently than people of the West but who are inclined to think food generally is safe in the West. The Chinese meat company purchasing an American meat company is just a case in point of easing both a health scare and a spiritual concern about locating safety first in food. Instead of employing difficult scientific terms, Fang harped on a simple point, which a large number of Chinese Internet readers find easy to understand, and convincing enough.

Fang’s opponent, Cui is another celebrity. Like Fang, he gained his popularity from something unconnected to GM food. He came to the fore as a CCTV anchor, hosting a popular program called the “Plain Facts in Plain Words.” He did an excellent job walking along the thin line—attracting the audience with some of the facts not always that pleasant to the authorities while managing to keep the show politically possible under the one-party system. His natural and humorous presentations style brought a fresh breath to a Chinese TV world of politically slanted and scripted presentations. The program gained a huge following in its own right, and his appearance on other popular programs like “Talk with Little Cui” added to his status as a national celebrity. Like Fang too, Cui became a sort of public intellectual, though more within the system than in challenge to it. With increasing popularity, he moved on to other projects and activities while keeping up his microblogging, followed by a large number of fans.

It was quite accidental that the paths of the two crossed, where they unexpectedly came to blows, metaphorically speaking. In September 2013, Fang organized a GM corn gathering event, believing that it might promote a positive attitude toward GM food. Cui posted a piece in his much-followed microblogging regarding the event. “You may choose eating, and I may choose not eating. You claim you know science, [but] I have the reason and right to question whether yours is really scientific. You may say I am idiotic, but I may say you eat for free.” Except for the last sentence which could carry a subtle suggestion that Fang is funded by GM food companies, it is basically a humorous comment commonly seen online. But Fang, who feels that his authority cannot be questioned, immediately snapped, questioning Cui’s qualification to discuss GM food. Cui, of course, hit back.

It is probably reasonable to say both men have bloated egos. A simple comment led to the heated argument, and then a war of nasty words. Both had too much stake in the debate. Now it must be emphasized here that their activities online tremendously added to their public popularity and visibility. With the traditional media so politically controlled, people direct most of their attention to things online rather than those in the official publication. Because of their so-called Capital V status on the Internet, their comments are sometimes read and reread out of context and considered all out of proportion to what is actually at stake. Neither could afford to lose face as the one failing to have the last word.

More bitter and scathing words were exchanged between the two, such as “scammer,” “scoundrel,” “crazy dog,” almost like in a swearing war. With their huge number of followers, the impassioned debate became a national one, or nationally-followed one like an unfolding top box office drama, though the followers may be said to be more interested in the two celebrated debaters, than in the contents of the debate itself.

In spite of it, GM food suddenly became the hottest catch word in China, elevating GMO awareness among the public. Suddenly, the history of food choice, not just food safety, became a major topic. Following the debate, serious articles and books were written and translated. By and large, Chinese consumers began to take the matter seriously.

Cui was aware of his being no scientist, which put him at a disadvantage. So he adopted a unique approach of his own by making a two-week journey to the United States for a documentary on GM food. With Fang’s most salient point about the GM food being unquestionably accepted in the West, Cui tried to present a different picture, thus turning the table on Fang. In the documentary made with his own money, Cui tries to present the debate among American scientists and people about whether it is safe for consumers to have GM food. While the documentary claimed itself to be objective, his perspective, or the way the questions are formed or raised, are somewhat subjective, sometimes perhaps even biased. The documentary was widely viewed on the Internet in China, but as anticipated, it did not prove anything conclusive, and was criticized by Fang as being unscientific and misleading.


More bitter and scathing words were exchanged between the two, such as “scammer,” “scoundrel,” “crazy dog,” almost as in a swearing war. … GM food suddenly became the hottest catch word in China, elevating GMO awareness among the public.

The two went on with their passionate and personal comments against each other on the microblogging platform, fighting like cat and dog. After the much publicized exchange of frenzied words, Fang decided to sue Cui, demanding compensation for alleged defamation. Cui then counter sued for similar reason. As generally expected, the dramatic fight between the two is still going on at this moment, and still intriguing millions of spectators too.

The GM food debate between Fang and Cui—sometimes too fiery and dramatic and personal—is not without some positive upshots, though. By and large, Chinese people have become more GM conscious, whether they are for or against it, which may be seen as paving the way for more healthy and scientific discussion in the future.

And more specifically, a documentary being produced out of personal funds for a public topic and then shown online also set up a meaningful precedent, which in some way testifies to the lessening of the governmental control in public areas where people chose to become increasingly involved.

Needless to say, the GM food debate—or the politics surrounding it—is far from over, continuing often in totally surprising ways, as part of China’s socialist character.

One of the latest ironical developments is that Fang’s website has been shut down by the government, and his microblogging, silenced too. On the surface, it may have nothing to do with GM food. Just a couple of months ago, in an important speech about literature and art, Chinese President Xi praised a young online writer Zhou Xiaoping, who is notorious as a fifty-cent leftist. The term “fifty cent” came from the joke that people like Zhou mass-produce pro-government posts for money; not much money, since it is easy to post such predictable and unimaginative content. In an article, Zhou presented a negative picture of the United States with apparent fabrications and errors, so Fang could not help stepping out and nailing the lies. Now among those crushed by Fang, Zhou is not one of sizable caliber; so it was not expected that Fang would get into serious political trouble, yet he was officially silenced for the first time. As it is commonly believed, it is because he targeted one endorsed by the current Chinese president. But according to some, it can be just an excuse. The “red second generation” or the “princelings” are generally seen as distrustful toward GMOs, inclined toward the meta-narrative of genetically altered food being part of a western conspiracy. Now Xi, a red prince himself, serves as the president and the Party secretary with a number of princes in important positions under him. So it is quite possible that they are really responsible for the Fang’s trouble.

Nor is Cui left without some unexpected consequence. Just a month ago, another documentary, also made by a public intellectual, Chai Jing (a former colleague of Cui’s in CCTV), with her own funds of about a million yuan, was shown online. The documentary is titled “Under the Dome,” focusing on the air pollution in China. In less than two days, more than a billion viewers watched it online. The government became so worried, it banned the video. Now that is a different story in itself, but Chai was apparently influenced by Cui in making the documentary about a controversial public topic. Whether related to it or not, Cui’s new TV program, “The Eye in the Orient” recently also came to a sudden stop.

To return to China’s politics and food: Things, seemingly unrelated or unconnected, may become mysteriously related through the tangle into of politics. Disregarding the Confucian food narrative of thousands of years ago, the food safety scandals that have resulted from the contemporary materialism of China’s character, the Capital Vs like Cui and Fang with millions of fans registered on the Internet because of the public distrust of the official media; all of this has come together, involving Cui and Fang in the GM food controversies, which swept the country so spectacularly. It is almost like a metaphor in Buddhism: a peck (by the bird), and a sip (of the water), as if everything was getting related and juxtaposed in a sort of preordained causality of the GM food drama in China’s politics.