Never mind the overcapacity, have some dim sum!

Why did China's state media focus so intently on what US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen ate?
By Qian Lang and Liu Bangyu for RFA Mandarin
2024.04.12
Never mind the overcapacity, have some dim sum! U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, right, and U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns sample beer at the Jing-A brewery in Beijing, April 8, 2024.
Tatan Syuflana/AP

China's state media appeared keen this week to portray U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as a relatable grandmother figure, showing her out and about at restaurants, quaffing beer and using chopsticks with a practiced hand, despite slow progress on intractable trade issues.

Yellen was in China at least in part to relay American concerns about industrial overcapacity in China “flooding” foreign markets with cheap exports, though she sought to reassure her Chinese counterparts that the United States "does not seek to decouple from China."

Yet while Yellen met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, a significantly high-level of contact between the world’s two biggest – and rivaling – economies, Chinese media were busy portraying her as a down-to-earth figure on a "friendly" visit to the country to enjoy its foodie lifestyle.

Reading a breakout on her trip from state-backed media The Paper, you could be forgiven for wondering if she had any pressing mission to China at all other than sampling cuisine from its various culinary regions.

"White-haired U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen got off the plane at Guangzhou's Baiyun Airport, dressed simply ... carrying a particularly eye-catching crossbody bag ... and a black laptop bag," the article said, quoting social media comments as saying she looked "like a sightseeing grandma."

It said her "approachable" style had "softened" the tone of her hard-talking trade negotiations.

Then it launched into a list of meals eaten by "foodie" Yellen during her trip, including a famed Cantonese restaurant in Guangzhou on arrival, where she tucked into "Cantonese delicacies like fungus okra, roast goose, barbecued pork, shrimp dumplings, seafood red rice sausage and double skin milk."

In Beijing, Yellen went for Sichuanese, including "cold noodles and Dandan noodles," The Paper reported, while the nationalist Global Times commented on her "skillful" use of chopsticks, as shown in footage aired by state broadcaster CCTV.

"Each dumpling, intricately folded with 13 pleats and generously filled with succulent shrimp, bamboo shoots, and a blend of lean and fatty pork, showcased the culinary finesse synonymous with Cantonese dim sum culture," the paper rhapsodized about Yellen's meal in Guangzhou.

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, center left, eats Chinese food at a restaurant April 8, 2024 in Beijing. (China News Service via Reuters)

"Among the culinary highlights was chilled sweet and sour pork, an innovative reinterpretation of a classic dish. Beneath a translucent layer of ice, the pork glistened with freshness, boasting a delightful juxtaposition of textures and temperatures," it drooled.

The paper took a slightly more serious tone in an op-ed, noting that Yellen's visit was "high-stakes," and that "food diplomacy" would only get her so far, and taking issue with U.S. complaints of overcapacity in some sectors of Chinese manufacturing, which Chinese officials say are "groundless." 

‘Putting on a show’

But actual details about the ongoing negotiations were few and far between.

"The Chinese people welcome anyone from anywhere to come and enjoy our food, but that does not mean we won't push back against groundless accusations and outright crackdowns," the paper concluded.

A Guangzhou-based journalist who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said the media was focusing on Yellen's culinary progress because they weren't authorized to report on the trade talks independently of approved state media reports.

"They were kind of avoiding [those issues] and all of the conflicts during the negotiations, because there was nothing they were allowed to say publicly," Chen said.

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, right, eats Chinese food at a restaurant April 8, 2024 in Beijing. (China News Service via Reuters)

"This kind of reporting is just putting on a show ... because around 70% of China's economic growth and technological development is dependent on the United States," he said. "So China wants good economic relations with the U.S."

He said the circumspect approach was also intended to shore up Yellen's reputation as a China hand, in the hope that she will come back for further negotiations and encourage more incoming investment.

Beijing-based journalist Wen Feng said the reports also convey the impression that Sino-U.S. relations are basically stable, and that Yellen has a good personal relationship with the Chinese government.

"Chinese officials want to show that when U.S. officials come for talks, we are a country of etiquette, and that we are hospitable," Wen said. "They also want to convey the message to Chinese people that they are doing a good job of handling Sino-U.S. ties."

New form of panda diplomacy?

U.S.-based current affairs commentator Ma Ju agreed, saying most Chinese media were deliberately avoiding the issue of overcapacity in the clean energy sector.

"It is actually very sad if a journalist can only report on what Yellen ate or drank or whatever," Ma said. "They can't talk about what ... kind of requests she made, what she said, or on any of the detailed discussions about the bilateral economic and financial relationship."

He said "food diplomacy" is a new form of "panda diplomacy" -- all symbolism and no substance.

"Chinese media ... are distorting the various remarks Yellen made during her visit to China, and everything she said after she left," Ma said. "It's been clearly demonstrated that the U.S. now has to build a dam to prevent China's excess production capacity from harming U.S. and global manufacturing."

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, right, high-fives diners inside a Chinese food at a restaurant April 8, 2024 in Beijing. (China News Service via Reuters)

According to international media reports, Yellen told Premier Li that bilateral relations are now more stable because the two sides can have “difficult” discussions. 

“That doesn’t mean ignoring our differences or avoiding difficult conversations,” she said. “It means understanding that we can only make progress if we communicate with each other directly and openly.”

Reuters quoted a senior U.S. Treasury Department official as saying after the meeting that the two sides discussed in detail China’s industrial overcapacity problem and the government support that contributes to the problem. 

Li has shown a willingness to let the U.S. and Chinese economic teams explore the issue further.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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