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In China, Horse With a Side of Poisonous Fake Mutton

By Adam Minter
February 19, 2013 6:47 PM EST

No one covers European horse meat quite like China Central Television, the state-owned and operated news media and entertainment juggernaut.

For the past week and a half, CCTV newscasts just haven’t been complete without the most up-to-date information on the deceit that led to horse meat being sold as beef across Europe. Indeed, horse meat fever runs so hot at CCTV that, as of the afternoon of Feb. 19 in China, a search for “horse meat” on the network’s official website produced 313 video results, with only a handful predating Feb. 11.

What might account for such editorial devotion to a foreign news story that will never affect China? “Atypical Pisces,” the handle of an anonymous microblogger on the popular Sina Weibo platform, tweeted a theory on the morning of Feb. 18. Her missive opens by describing a conversation with a foreign correspondent for one of China’s state-owned news outlets:

“During Chinese New Year a foreign correspondent told me that when something happened domestically in China, they were told to go find an analogous situation in the country where they’re stationed. For example, if a landslide happened in China, they had to find local news about a landslide; if a bridge collapsed in China, they had to find a similar piece of news. When this similar news is broadcast on TV, people will think the problem happens globally and China isn’t alone in its suffering. Recently, we are talking about horse meat so that must mean China has a big problem with mutton … ”

As it happens, China does have a big problem with what state-owned and operated China Radio International recently characterized as “poisonous fake mutton,” of which more than 40 tons was recently seized in northern China. This incident -- only the latest in China’s history of food scandals -- involves fraudsters treating cheap duck meat with toxic chemicals and mutton grease and selling it as far more expensive lamb to hotpot restaurants. (A 2009 version of the same scam, in which duck was dipped in nontoxic lamb urine to infuse it, supposedly, with muttony flavor, is an all-time Chinese food-scandal low point.)

Despite poisonous fake mutton being a far more disgusting, dangerous and -- at the moment, at least -- Chinese problem than European horse meat disguised as beef, CCTV has run only one story (on Feb. 17) about the domestic mutton scandal. Other state-run news organizations have also been one-sided in their coverage of horse meat versus poisonous fake mutton, though the ratios are not nearly as skewed.

Of course, news editors and producers have many reasons for choosing the mix of stories that run on their programs and in their newspapers. It’s quite possible that CCTV’s brass believe that their viewers are far more interested -- if not entertained -- by horse meat than by poisonous fake mutton.

As it turns out, the Chinese are interested in both -- and especially in how the coverage of one scandal, and the reality of the other, reflects poorly on the country’s leadership. Indeed, food scandals -- and the incompetence of the regulators responsible for stopping them -- have been particularly popular on China’s microblogs for several years. In this case, the horse meat coverage has not only failed to distract the Chinese from their own food issues, or convince them that Europe suffers similar afflictions, but also managed to create an intense backlash against CCTV and China’s already much-hated food safety regulator.

On Sina Weibo, a Feb. 19 search for “fake lamb” brought up more than 490,000 results, while a search for “horse meat” brought up 430,000. (Admittedly, fake lamb scandals have been around since 2009, at least, and horse meat is a relatively new social media interest.) Of those search results, a vast number of the tweets are either critical of China’s abysmal food-safety record or scathing about CCTV’s unwavering, wall-to-wall coverage of a European scandal when China has far more serious food issues.

In the former category, the tweets tend to link the horse meat and fake poison lamb scandals, such as in this Feb. 13 post to Sina Weibo by “Exercise Book,” an anonymous microblogger with 5 million followers: “I envy the European countries where horse meat is mixed with beef. In our country, duck is mixed with poisonous lamb meat essence.” Much in the same spirit, but without reference to poisonous mutton, the Sina Weibo account registered to New Weekly, a popular, independent Guangzhou-based magazine wrote a tweet related to the two scandals on Feb. 17 that has been forwarded more than 38,000 times: “In Europe, unscrupulous businesspeople just add horse to the beef; in China, you don’t know whether what you have eaten is meat or not.”

In the latter category of tweets, China’s microbloggers have become borderline political, often calling into question the integrity and competence of Communist Party-run CCTV. On Feb. 19 a self-identified Beijing police officer tweeted: “When you see CCTV and other mainstream media report the European horse meat scandal, and then you go back and look at our country’s food safety crisis and groundwater contamination, don’t you want to blush? The nerve!”

Some of the most popular tweets generated from the dual scandals combine the two critiques: culinary and media. This rambling Feb. 15 missive from “fen1234,” a microblogger in Anhui province, names several infamous Chinese -- and non-Chinese -- food safety scandals: “CCTV has reported the European horsemeat event for days on end with no goal other than to taunt the European officials: ‘Can’t you handle such a small thing? It’d be solved if it happened in China.’ Is horsemeat poisonous? Compared with clenbuterol, water-injected beef, hormone-ripened chicken, leather milk, melamine, and Sudan red, horse meat is a trifle. Despite the fact that China’s food safety situation is notorious around the world, CCTV is willing to serve as the conscience of the capitalist media.” Fen1234’s tweet has been forwarded more than 5,400 times and generated more than 800 comments.

It seems the already considerable gap between state-run media outlets and the growing ranks of microbloggers who have made a national pastime of deriding them is only growing wider.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.

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