China orders construction of state-run canteens in self-contained community hubs

Local one-stop shop services will boost state control over food supply, and could be linked to war planning.
By Gu Ting and Jane Tang for RFA Mandarin, Jojo Man for RFA Cantonese
China orders construction of state-run canteens in self-contained community hubs State canteens have been popping up in residential compounds across Hunan, Hubei, Shandong and Yunnan provinces since July, often run and funded by neighborhood committees.
RFA screenshot from video

The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is accelerating a return to the state-run economics of the Mao era, with local governments and neighborhoods ordered to build self-contained community depots to serve residential compounds in time of need, experts told RFA in recent interviews.

The ministries of housing and civil affairs have ordered residential communities in pilot areas to build self-contained service depots in residential compounds offering convenience stores, vegetable stalls, state-run canteens, mail and express delivery service facilities, hair salons, laundry shops, pharmacies, maintenance points, and housekeeping services.

If rolled out nationwide, the move would effectively make it far easier to confine people to their homes, whether due to Chinese leader Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy or other national contingencies like war, natural disaster or civil unrest.

Any grouping of 100 households must have a comprehensive service hub of at least 30 square-meters (325 square-feet) under the pilot plan, which will be implemented by local governments and district and neighborhood committees.

Efforts must be made to ensure that residential compounds all have access to community hospitals, schooling, nursing homes, and state canteens, newly built if necessary, within 15 minutes of people's homes, a Nov. 1 report on the official Chinese government website said.

State-run "community canteens" are already starting to appear, with a social media video of one in the Fengqing residential community in the central city of Wuhan showing people lining up to buy mass-produced meals.

"I'm here to taste the kind of fare on offer at a state-run canteen," the presenter says to camera, before tucking into a bowl of rice with various other dishes in colorful bowls on a tray.

The memory of state-run canteens and state stores under the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives has made many older people in China uneasy with the break with the market-reform era of Deng Xiaoping, which followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

"We suffered under the planned economy, and it's only now, under the market economy, that we finally have enough to eat," Jiangsu-based current affairs commentator Zhang Jianping told RFA. "Barely have we eaten our fill, and it's back to the planned economy again."

"To be honest, we all have a sense of dread ... People are also speculating whether this means there is going to be a war," he said. "War would be the only reason for a return to the planned economy, which is obviously a kind of regression."

Hunan current affairs commentator Li Ang agreed.

"The old planned economy and [attempts at] socialist self-sufficiency are still fresh in our memories," Li said. "We experienced all of that when we were kids."

"It's a clear demonstration of their determination in the face of their belief in the decoupling from Western civilization, in the wake of the 20th party congress," he said.

A newly built residential canteen in Wuhan, China. Credit: RFA screenshot from video

Looking ahead to 'a country at war'

State canteens have been popping up in residential compounds across Hunan, Hubei, Shandong and Yunnan provinces since July, often run and funded by neighborhood committees, and offering more affordable meals than commercial restaurants.

They have been particularly popular with people on a low income, such as the elderly.

"Back then, they built canteens on a large scale to make economies of scale, and also to minimize food waste," current affairs commentator Ma Ju told RFA. "They figured that having only a few people in any place doing the cooking would free up other laborers, which could improve productivity."

"Today's large-scale canteen construction feels more like we're looking ahead to being a country at war."

However, centralizing canteens also politicizes food, and who gets to eat it, Ma said.

"Building canteens is also about controlling people through food ... and associating the Communist Party in people's minds with getting fed," he said. "The purpose is to enable them to impose emergency measures [on the population], anywhere and at any time."

Both state canteens and supply and marketing co-ops also evoke memories from the 1970s and 1980s of being asked for food rationing tickets limiting the amount of rice, oil and other foods a family could buy in a week, with the neighborhood committees in charge of handing these over to residents.

Lai Rongwei, assistant professor at the General Education Center of Longhua University of Science and Technology, agreed that the Chinese Communist Party is looking to maintain social stability by offering a "one-stop shop" to serve people locally, and to exert collective controls over them at the same time.

"Put simply, this is about controlling resources," Lai told RFA. "On the supply side, they will be looking to centralize all agricultural production, similar to the People's Communes before the [Deng market reforms]."

'Decoupling' from the global economy

Analysts told RFA in recent interviews that China is quietly rebooting a Mao-era institution that once functioned as a pillar of the socialist command economy to prepare for future "decoupling" from the global economy, pointing to the elevation of supply and marketing co-ops chief Liang Huiling to the ruling party's Central Committee last month. 

Wu Chien-chung, associate professor at the National Taiwan Ocean University, agreed that Beijing could be planning for war.

"It remains to be seen whether local governments ... are capable of implementing this thinking from central government, which wants to store grain to prepare for war," Wu told RFA. 

Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong warned in an essay written to mark Mao Zedong's centenary in 2020: "Markets, just like history itself, can move backwards as well as forwards, and there is always a danger of regression under a great leader flying the banner of honor and right thinking." 

"The destruction of the markets was among the most prominent of Mao's tyrannies," wrote Bao, who spent seven years in prison after the fall of his political mentor Zhao Ziyang in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and remains under close surveillance in Beijing.

While the rebooted supply and marketing cooperative stores look more like a modern supermarket than the general stores of the 1970s and 1980s, many older people in China still remember rationing -- the side-effect of a top-down, command economy.

"I remember there was a building for the supply and marketing co-op, but they didn't let just anyone go in and buy stuff," Beijing-born economist Li Hengqing told RFA. "You had to have special ration tickets to buy oil, rice, meat and many other items."

"Nobody wants to go back to that," Li said.

“There wasn't any choice of products, and the attitude of the staff was generally very bad," he said. 

"I can still remember trying to buy meat and them refusing to give me any, because they were keeping it for someone they knew, or for one of the leaders. That was [typical of] state-owned enterprises."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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