RSS feed
China blog
24 July 2014 Last updated at 08:05

Digesting China's latest food scare

Exterior of Husi Foods complex in Shanghai Husi is the latest foreign-owned brand to become the subject of a scandal in China

Wang Fang didn't work for the Shanghai Husi Food Company for long.

Just two days into her new job packing pork products, she found herself caught up in the latest stomach-turning scandal to hit the Chinese headlines.

An investigation, broadcast by state-run TV, had shown her fellow workers mincing up piles of old greying meat and then repackaging it as new.

So the authorities moved in, closing down production and sending the workers home.

In the latest development, five staff members, including the company's quality manager, are reported to have been arrested.

And to the shocking allegations, Wang Fang can add one more. She is only 15 years old, still at school, and below China's minimum age for working.

During her short career at Husi, she says she was employed with no questions asked and set to work on gruelling 12-hour night shifts.

"I looked for many jobs, but because I am not old enough and the age on my ID card is too young, I couldn't get any job," she tells me.

"But when I went to Husi, I didn't need an interview, just a physical check up and then I started right away."

Shanghai Husi Food Co is alleged to have re-processed expired meat

And right away she wondered about the quality of the meat she was being asked to package for human consumption.

"The smell of the pork there was different from the pork we eat at home. I felt more like throwing up when I smelled it," she says.

"I thought maybe the smell came from the mass production. I had no idea that they are selling such old meat. I think it's very scary."

In one example, last weekend's TV expose showed a large quantity of veal, seven months past its expiry date, being given a new lease of life, extending the period in which it can be eaten for another year.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

And when Shanghai's food safety inspectors moved in, accompanied by journalists, it seems - from Wang Fang's account at least - that her managers did have something to hide.

"They put away all the meat and things that are on the production line and also cleaned the floor," she says. "After they put our stuff away, we all stood up, so the reporters came in but couldn't see anything."

It was a futile attempt as the most incriminating evidence had already been gathered by secret filming.

As a result, McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks, to name just a few of the fast food brands affected, have withdrawn Husi's products from sale.

One city centre McDonalds close to the BBC office today had only fish and chicken products on sale, no beef at all.

Food scandals are nothing new in China and some have certainly been much more serious than this one.

So far there have been no documented cases of ill health from Husi's products - although that will be of little comfort to consumers.

Judging from those I spoke to in the street today, almost all had heard of the scandal and many said they had stopped eating in the restaurants affected.

McDonalds restaurant in Shanghai McDonalds is one of several brands - along with KFC and Starbucks - that have withdrawn Husi products from sale

But could there be more to the case than the simple apparent breach of food safety regulations?

Husi is one of the biggest meat suppliers in Shanghai and it just happens to be owned by one of the biggest meat processing companies in the world, the US-based OSI group.

Some observers are wondering if there are parallels with the recent troubles facing another big foreign brand in China.

With China's pharmaceutical sector, just like the food industry, riddled with corruption and lax regulation, the singling out of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for allegations of widespread bribery has been an issue of much debate.

Whatever the strength of the evidence against the company, some argue that it is being used as a convenient foreign scapegoat, deflecting attention from similar problems in home-grown brands and the industry as a whole.

Officials at Husi Foods offices Husi has insisted that the scandal uncovered an isolated incident

What seems certain is that - given the political nature of all state institutions in China, including food-safety bureaux and media organisations - action against such big, high-profile companies is unlikely to be independent and spontaneous.

And while both companies are insisting that whatever has been uncovered is the result of localised problems - the Husi statement this week spoke of an isolated incident as opposed to anything more systemic - the authorities appear to want to show much more than that.

Just as with GSK, where they allege the bribery was masterminded by senior management, Chinese state media today claimed that Shanghai's food safety investigators had found a similar trail to the top at Husi.

But regardless of the truth of the allegations or the real motivation behind them, for the foreign restaurant brands affected by this latest scandal, the damage may be short lived.

One shopper I spoke to told me that she was giving up her regular breakfasts at McDonalds in disgust.

"How long for?" I asked.

"Oh, about a month," she replied.


Chinese Communists' adultery ban - a propaganda stunt?

Delegates take part in the closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 13 March 2014. The Chinese Communist Party is said to be the largest political party in the world with millions of members

Cheating on your wife? Well, if you're a Communist party official you'd better think again - you could face the sack.

We've heard a lot about China's far-reaching anti-corruption campaign at the behest of President Xi Jinping.

Less, however, has been made about the ruling Communist Party's latest crackdown on "moral corruption".

While adultery may be frowned upon in China it is not illegal for ordinary citizens.

But according to a report in the English-language newspaper China Daily, "adultery" is now banned for party members.

The newspaper says that members were warned in June by the Communist Party watchdog that they must adhere to "higher moral standards" than the public.

It reported that six officials have already been found guilty of committing "adultery" - but did not say what punishments had been meted out.

But just when you thought the party was taking a puritanical stand, the newspaper said that when authorities had previously accused officials of "moral corruption" they defined this as having more than "three mistresses".

In the public's eyes, mistresses have become the ultimate symbol of corruption. The common assumption is no official would able to buy his mistress a car or a home without pilfering from public funds.

According to a government report in 2007, an astonishing 90% of top officials brought down by corruption scandals had kept a mistress - and in many cases they had more than one.

But many see the Communist party preaching about morality as perverse and little more than a propaganda stunt.

When the former top leader, Bo Xilai, was first charged with corruption, prosecutors added rather gratuitously that he had "maintained improper sexual relations" with several women.

The accusation may well have been true. But by putting sex on the charge sheet the authorities were seeking to blacken the politician's name before a trial even took place.

The party must have hoped the public would focus on the moral failings of one man - rather than its own misdeeds.


'Rock star' China journalist is arrested

In this 29 Jan 2011 file photo, director and anchor of China Central Television Rui Chenggang moderates a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Mr Rui is one of China's highest profile TV presenters and has moderated sessions at the World Economic Forum

Last Friday, when the popular host Rui Chenggang failed to appear for his daily business programme, Economic News, some of his colleagues at China Central Television (CCTV) initially did not think anything was wrong.

CCTV staff told the BBC that Mr Rui had a habit of running late - even, on occasions, missing his own shows.

So, the hour-long daily programme started with Mr Rui's empty chair and microphone visible to viewers while his co-host took up the slack.

Surely, thought Mr Rui's colleagues, he would turn up soon. But the presenter did not.

Over the weekend it became clear that Mr Rui's no-show was far more serious than a spot of tardiness.

State media reported that Mr Rui had been abruptly detained on Friday along with a senior CCTV executive.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

His arrest comes less than two months after his boss was detained on suspicion of taking bribes, and it is said that Mr Rui's arrest has to do with an ongoing crackdown on corruption in CCTV.

The government has not yet confirmed the detentions.

With millions of followers on Chinese social media, Mr Rui is one of China's highest profile TV presenters.

Now he has the notoriety of being the best known celebrity to be brought down by the ruling Communist Party's current crackdown on corruption.

He developed a reputation for brashness and cockiness that won him public attention but not always the affection of his fellow journalists.

Mr Rui first shot to prominence after leading a successful nationalistic campaign to get the government to remove a Starbucks coffee shop from the historic Forbidden City.

He then raised yet more eyebrows when during a press conference with Barack Obama he told the US President he could represent "all of Asia" with his question.

According to his CCTV profile, he interviewed the global elite including the former US president, Bill Clinton, and the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.

Rui Chenggang, Director and anchor of China Central Televison (CCTV) talks during a CCTV televised debate focusing on China's growth at the World Economic Forum on 29 January 2010 in Davos. With millions of followers on Chinese social media, Mr Rui is one of China's highest profile TV presenters
 Coffee cups sit on the windowsill at the Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing's Forbidden City  on 18 January 2007. Mr Rui led a successful campaign to get the government to remove a Starbucks outlet from the Forbidden City

While presenting a BBC radio documentary on the Chinese economy, it was clear that he was used to the rock star lifestyle.

Corruption is common in Chinese state media with some journalists, for example, regularly accepting payments for interviews in return for flattering coverage. A journalist like Mr Rui who has a taste for sharp suits and fast cars has inevitably led to speculation.

News of Mr Rui's detention divided public opinion.

"Brother Rui, what's going on?," posted one fan on Mr Rui's Weibo account - China's version of Twitter. "Please come back soon. I know you are clean. We trust you."

Another posted: "I'm not surprised at all. He is such a selfish, arrogant and aggressive man."


Ramadan students 'forced to eat'

 This picture taken on 8 November 2013 shows a group of Uighur women outside a mosque in Kashgar, far west China's Xinjiang region. Kashgar is home to a significant Muslim Uighur population

Several university students from China's western region of Xinjiang have told the BBC that they are being banned from fasting during the month of Ramadan.

The three Muslim students we spoke to the BBC did not want their identities revealed as they fear government reprisals for speaking about a sensitive issue.

But they told us they were being forced to have meals with professors to ensure they were not fasting.

Those who refuse to eat risk being punished by officials.

One student told us, "If you want a normal life here then you'd better not fast."

Xinjiang is home to the Uighur ethnic minority - most of whom are Muslim.

Beijing blames a string of recent attacks on Muslim extremists and what it calls overseas terrorist groups.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

On Thursday, courts in Xinjiang handed 32 people prison terms for downloading or sending "violent terror" videos.

Many Uighurs, however, say the violence is being fuelled by Beijing's repression of their cultural and religious beliefs.

The students who spoke to the BBC said that fasting was banned in all universities across the region.

Several government departments are also enforcing a ban.

One government hospital even got Muslim staff to sign a written pledge promising not to fast.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan - when the faithful do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset - is considered one of the five pillars of Islam.

Traditionally, children, pregnant women, the sick and those travelling are exempt from fasting.

As part of a propaganda drive, state-run newspapers in Xinjiang have been running editorials warning about the health dangers of not eating and drinking.

This is not the first time the Chinese authorities have restricted fasting in Xinjiang.

But with the restrictions coming amidst growing violence in the region, it is likely to exacerbate tensions.

The students we spoke to at Kashgar Normal University said those Uighurs refusing to eat received official warnings, which could seriously affect their future career prospects.

In some cases, students could even be denied by their degrees.

"Most of us would like to fast," said one of the students. "But with the current situation most of us have decided against it."


Is Xi Jinping trying to provoke anger against Japan?

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a Korea-China Investment Forum at Shilla Hotel in Seoul, South Korea (4 July 2014) President Xi Jinping said the Chinese people would oppose anyone who tries to rewrite history

In China, the 77th anniversary of an event rarely merits a nationally televised memorial service - or an appearance by President Xi Jinping.

But on Monday more than 1,000 special guests, including top Communist officials, military veterans and young children, turned out for a highly choreographed memorial marking the Marco Polo bridge incident which sparked the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.

The bloody skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops took place on the outskirts of Beijing, igniting Japan's eight-year invasion of China.

"This grand ceremony is here to remember history, commemorate martyrs, cherish peace and sound a warning to the future," Mr Xi said in a speech outside the Museum of the War of the Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

Mr Xi used his speech to comment on the present, criticising a "small group of people who ignore historical facts" and "create regional tension".

Dozens of school children then shouted a vow "not to forget the shame of the nation".

In the past, memorials of the 7 July battle were relatively low-key. Last year, a two-minute state television story on the anniversary featured local Communist Party members placing flowers on the Marco Polo bridge.

But this year's 90-minute television spectacle comes as Beijing is putting pressure on Tokyo to apologise for wartime acts, including Japan's use of wartime sex slaves and the Nanjing massacre in 1937.

The two countries are also engaged in regional disputes.

China and Japan both have claims over a small string of islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

Last week, Japan alarmed many in China by reinterpreting its constitution, giving the Japanese military greater latitude to fight overseas.

A protester burns a portrait of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the Chinese characters "Shameful" written on it, outside the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong on 7 July, 2014 A Chinese protester burns a picture of Japan's PM Shinzo Abe with the Chinese word for "shameful" written on it
Chinese citizens gather to remember victims during the bombing of Chongqing and commemorate the 77th anniversary of the official start of war with Japan in southwest China's Chongqing municipality on 7 July, 2014 Chinese citizens gathered on Monday to pay tribute to war victims

Monday's memorial service was the leading topic of conversation for millions on Weibo, the leading Chinese internet forum often compared to Twitter.

"This is a national humiliation which we can never forget," read a typical comment. "What China-Japan Friendship? Wolves will always devour humans. It is a crime to be friendly to our enemies."

Out of thousands of comments online, only a tiny minority questioned the purpose of the televised memorial.

"Look what the government has stirred up among the people? Anger created for a political purpose is bad. This will only make things worse," the dissenter wrote.


Hong Kong voters embrace unofficial poll

Occupy Central co-organisers announce the number of votes twenty-six hours after their unofficial referendum began in Hong Kong on 21 June, 2014 Organisers from the Occupy Central movement said the number of votes cast exceeded their expectations

Despite what organisers called the biggest cyber attack in Hong Kong's history, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to voice their opinion in an unofficial pro-democracy referendum that started on Friday.

As of 21:00 local time (14:00GMT) on Sunday, 689,000 ballots had been cast in the city-wide vote organised by the Occupy Central movement.

The high turnout has far exceeded expectations. Organisers said they would have been happy with at least 100,000 votes.

Start Quote

We want real democracy; that's why we're here”

End Quote Natalie Cheng Voter

The actual voting, both online and in person at 15 polling stations scattered across Hong Kong, was overseen by Robert Chung, an experienced pollster from the University of Hong Kong.

He told me the system had originally been designed to handle a maximum of 800,000 votes.

No one had expected so many ballots to be cast just three days into the 10-day voting exercise.

"It is approaching the technical limit of our design so I would say the turnout so far is surprisingly high," he said at a polling station in the Causeway Bay neighbourhood.

People queue up at a polling centre to vote in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform in Hong Kong on Sunday, 22 June, 2014 Residents queued to cast their ballots at 15 polling stations
Financial analyst Natalie Cheng poses outside a polling station in Hong Kong Young voters like Natalie Cheng (pictured) want a say in who leads Hong Kong
'Real democracy'

One of the voters was 25-year-old financial analyst Natalie Cheng, who came to vote with her friends.

Unable to successfully cast a ballot online because of heavy traffic and a continuing cyber attack, she decided to visit a polling centre.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

"We want freedom. We want real democracy. That's why we're here," she explained.

"In three years, the list of candidates the Chinese government will give us will probably be approved by the Chinese government, not approved by us. And it's not fair. We won't be able to vote for a real (chief) executive. This is not real democracy."

She chose the first of the three proposals on the ballot. All of them involve allowing the public to nominate the candidates for chief executive in 2017.

That Natalie and her friends were allowed to publicly vote in a large-scale poll organised by political activists is, in itself, an example of Hong Kong's unique status in China.

As a condition of the former British colony's return to China in 1997, it was promised special rights and privileges, including full universal suffrage.

The Chinese government has agreed that in three years, the next chief executive would be elected directly by the city's 3.5 million voters.

But officials insist the candidates must be shortlisted by a nomination committee, as spelled out in the Basic Law, the constitution that governs Hong Kong.

Associate Law Professor Benny Tai poses outside a polling station in Hong Kong on 22 June, 2014 Law professor Benny Tai poses outside a polling station in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy activists fear the way the Chinese government interprets the law will result in what they consider a sham election, with voters allowed to choose from only a list of loyalists whose sympathies lie with Beijing.

Benny Tai, a law professor who started the Occupy Central movement, said his goal was to put pressure on the Chinese government to implement an 'internationally accepted' form of universal suffrage.

The official Xinhua news agency has called the referendum "illegal" and "invalid".

But Mr Tai said even if the referendum were not legally binding, the strong turnout could not be ignored.

"They have clearly indicated their view that they deeply want true democracy for Hong Kong," he said. "Any responsible government cannot ignore or undervalue their views."

The Hong Kong government ended a five-month public consultation on the future of political reforms in May.

Later this year, it is expected to unveil its own electoral reform proposal, which must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers.

Mr Tai has indicated that if the proposal does not satisfy international standards, then Occupy Central may mobilise thousands of supporters to paralyse the Central business district in a civil disobedience campaign.

Over the past 35 years, the Chinese Communist Party has been experimenting with economic reforms in designated areas, before popularising them elsewhere.

But the unexpectedly large turnout by the Hong Kong public suggests the party may be much less surefooted in experimenting with political reforms, especially in a city with established freedoms of speech and assembly.


About this Blog:

Welcome to the BBC China blog, where our teams across the country will be updating you with their latest insights.

The idea is to focus on the new and newsworthy, but also to use our journalists’ expertise to shine fresh light on China’s remarkable transformation and the upheaval it is bringing to millions of lives.

We also hope the blog will offer a new dimension to our coverage, allowing us to explore stories and themes which we cannot easily get to in our usual news stories and features.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bureaus in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think, and which subjects you would be interested to know more about. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

Useful links

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.