Friday, January 17, 2014

You are What You Eat: Of Steamed Buns, Pizza, and Politicians

Food seems to be a popular political tool for politicians across the globe. Of course, the type of food is the crucial factor here: if one wants to convey that he stands with the people, as politicians are oft to do, he will choose a common food. When ordinary people see the public figure eating ordinary food, it makes the figure more relatable and representative. Apparently, this applies to Chinese politics as much as Western politics.

While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio undergoes scrutiny for his selection of utensils, the Chinese media and online forums exploded with admiration and praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant last month. During this surprise visit, Mr. Xi reportedly stood in line and paid for his own buns, reiterating his political platform as a “leader of the people”. In the Qingfeng Steamed Dumpling Shop, Mr. Xi ordered pork and onion buns, green vegetables, and pig intestines for roughly $3.40. Criticisms for the visit arose as well, though they were overwhelmed by the tide of positive response to this rare demonstration of populism.


President Xi enjoying an everyman’s lunch

While American politicians commonly frequent popular local establishments in campaign events, this type of PR strategy is few and far between in China. With a long history of institutionalized separation between the masses and those in power, modern Chinese perceptions of their inaccessible political leaders often fringe on the superhuman. For locals, President Xi’s visit instantly canonized his order, with the dishes and the Beijing eatery becoming popular subjects for tourism.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio had markedly different reactions from his recent restaurant visit. The new mayor of New York City was seen eating pizza at the popular Staten Island eatery, Goodfella’s Pizza. Instead of starting a new pizza craze, the mayor’s lunch visit sparked an online and media controversy.

Common criticisms cite Mayor de Blasio’s use of a fork to eat his pizza as unrepresentative of the New York style. After the visit, Mayor de Blasio’s food selections aren’t the focus of the subsequent tourism – his cutlery is. The restaurant owner proceeded to put the fork on display, with plans to auction off the utensil at a charity fundraiser.


Jon Stewart is on top of “Forkgate” with Mayor de Blasio

(Photo: Comedy Central)

It could be said that Mayor de Blasio’s gaffe derives in his “wrong” eating technique, one that was distinctively un-New York and not reflective of “the people,” while Mr. Xi adhered to common eating practices. Yet, a review of photos from the event revealed that Mr. Xi used chopsticks instead of his hands, which is the more common practice for Chinese people. Granted, politeness is a valid excuse for preferring one method to another, yet Mr. Xi encountered no criticisms of any kind over his choice of utensils.

For Mr. Xi, his lunch of steamed buns elevated the dish and the restaurant to a “presidential” level, while Mayor de Blasio was condemned for failing to adhere to the “ordinary” level. The differences in the reactions to Mr. Xi and Mayor de Blasio’s restaurant outings demonstrate fundamental differences in the sociopolitical conditions between China and the United States. Perhaps this shift in popular appeal marks a parallel shift in Chinese political norms. Mr. Xi’s bid to represent the Chinese people, or laobaixing, could be the beginning of a China that puts more weight on the opinions of her citizens, though this remains to be seen.

Main image by Tutou Jueren via China Digital Times

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