kenny hodgart

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In praise of the SCMP’s ‘Around the Nation’

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

A woman destroys an ATM machine in a fit of rage. Another wins a hair-growing competition. A man, drunk, drowns in a manure pit. I know I am far from alone in finding the South China Morning Post’s Around the Nation page one of its most compelling sections. Countless conversations with editorial staff and SCMP loyalists assure me of this. Often, however, there is a tone of slight hesitation in their admissions – a wavering, I think, lest too pronounced an enthusiasm be taken to intimate a lack of seriousness about news.

Anyone familiar with this blog will acknowledge that if it does not always provide the final word in serious-minded comment, then it will at least include one or two from somewhere nearing that end of things. More generally, the SCMP is considered a serious organ – the sub-editors may quibble at the word, but its news and analysis tends more towards the intellectual than what used to be called “human interest”, even when it was about pets. With ATN, this order is subverted. Reader, a word here in its praise.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, buy the paper and you’ll see it: Around the Nation is a round-up of stories that have been making the headlines in sundry corners of the mainland. Some are routine – a new infrastructure project here, a government denial about something over there. Others are anecdotal but still marginally un-extraordinary: a man cracks a window during a quarrel on a bus with his girlfriend; a woman has to receive medical help after playing mahjong for three days solid. The most memorable can usually be filed under bizarre, gruesome, heartwarming, comical or downright appalling, although none of these categories is exclusive.

You would probably be right to identify this as tabloid journalism. A fine tradition, and one in which I’ve dabbled, and frequently defend, but make no mistake – it’s often voyeuristic, mawkish and vulgar. The snobs have a point. Doubtless, too, it serves as an instrument of distraction, particularly in a country such as China where “proper” journalism gets throttled. And this is all before one considers how things have evolved online, where it seems the only way for media organisations to thrive is to deploy armies of clickbait wallahs to churn out titillating content, and to hell with its veracity.

There is, I think, a case to be made that our appetite for the weird and wonderful, the salacious and the shocking, is such that a journalism that caters to it offers a valve – one that’s not inimical to but rather part of life in a civilised society. This applies, moreover, regardless of how far that society may or may not be shaped by the principles of Athenian democracy. In its way, though, ATN offers both less and more than this valve function.

For one, ATN is mediated, a digest from other sources, for English readers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There’s therefore an element of revelling in the wacky things that seem to happen in the mainland, puzzlement at the jarring effects created by awkwardly-translated phrases or sketchily-explained cultural mores, uncertainty at the degree of comic intentions. (What are we to make, for example, of this detail, included in a story about a pig which surprised visitors to a Buddhist temple in Wenzhou province by prostrating itself as if in prayer? “Photos posted online amazed some internet users, while others claimed the animal was suffering from a vitamin E deficiency.”)

At the same time, details omitted leave us wanting to know more, or attempting to piece things together in our imaginations, as we skip from the fantastical to the mundane to the brutal, mind-mapping the country, wondering what’s fact, what’s hearsay and what’s been embellished by eager hacks. The stories about mahjong casualties and failed blackmail attempts on local officials have an ageless quality, like folktales. Earlier this year it seems there was a spate of burglars breaking into homes then falling asleep.

Meanwhile, the outbreaks of violence or cruelty, the crazy people doing crazy things, the health scares, the exam stress – all contribute to a sense of modern China, even if they don’t tell us what modern China is. In Henan, a grave-visiting business opens for people who don’t have time to visit their own deceased relatives. In Chongqing, a farmer sells his ox to go looking for his runaway son.

ATN may be tabloid journalism by numbers on the one hand; on the other it offers a dispassionate window on a diverse country enduring the pangs of development. All human life is there. Animal life too.


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How China farted under poor Americans’ noses

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

Time was they were sort of unreceptive when it came to Communists, the Americans – a bit disobliging, all things considered. Not to overstate matters, during the Cold War normal human vitality often seemed indivisible in the American imagination from a desire to kick Bolshevik butts. That was the main thing I took from watching the 1984 version of the film Red Dawn, at any rate.

For better or worse – the former, one supposes – American attitudes towards modern-day Communist China are several degrees mellower. Indeed, tacit acceptance of China’s rise looks at times to have given way to a new dread of upsetting it and being thus dis-invited to the party. Being nice about China in blockbuster movies is one manifestation of this. Giving Chinese state-backed companies a role in the immiseration of America’s poor would seem to be another.

Smithfield Foods, until recently the world’s largest pork producer and processor, used to own hundreds of pig farms in North Carolina alone. These farms consist of three important elements: pigs, giant sheds for housing them and adjacent “lagoons” into which millions of gallons of their faeces and urine are deposited. The cesspits are emptied at intervals, their contents sprayed as a noxious mist over nearby fields.

In 2013, Smithfield sold out to Shuanghui, China’s largest pork producer, for US$4.7 billion, a 31% premium on the company’s publicly traded share price. The two had been weighing a partnership deal before the Chinese firm made a bolder offer, financing the purchase with a US$4 billion loan from the state-owned Bank of China.

Now effectively the owner, at a conservative estimate, of 1 in 4 American pigs, Shuanghui has been busy expanding production for export back to China, where the middle classes prefer not to eat anything reared in the motherland for fear of it being contaminated. This in turn appears to have increased levels of hydrogen sulphide and ammonia wafting into properties near U.S. farms, causing complaints of burning eyes, breathing difficulties, headaches, hypertension and anxiety.

Many of those affected in North Carolina are on low incomes. Many are black. Most have little option to move away. But a fightback of sorts is underway: in the last year some 500 individuals in the state have filed two dozen lawsuits against Shuanghui’s subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, complaining about the smell from its farms.

Initially, these actions sought to fix ultimate responsibility on the Chinese Communist Party. “Red China has taken a huge dump under the noses of the American people and been allowed to get away with it,” ran one writ – which, mark you, I have paraphrased. Last month, however, Shuanghui’s attorneys got their way, as a judge ruled any references to China, pork exports thereto, the CCP or even Smithfield being Chinese-owned, were inflammatory, irrelevant and off limits. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have proposed debarring newcomers to hog farm neighbourhoods from filing nuisance lawsuits and making losers in court pay corporate farms’ legal bills.

Voices were raised at the time of the takeover as to the wisdom of green-lighting Chinese control over such a large segment of the U.S food chain. Daniel M. Slane of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission told Congress he had concerns over Shuanghui’s strategic ties to the Chinese government, preferential access to subsidies, and so on. Debbie Stabenow, Democratic Senator for Michigan, worried that the Chinese company meant to use Smithfield’s processing technology to build up its own capabilities at home and undercut U.S. pork exports to the Pacific Rim. In the end, though, faith in open markets, and in Chinese money, prevailed.

Simply a case of one private company buying another is how Smithfield’s CEO, Larry Pope, described the merger in a Senate hearing. Only it clearly never was that simple, was it? In-keeping with its efforts in the field of currency manipulation, credit from Beijing gives Chinese companies a huge advantage over competitors in the U.S. and elsewhere.

What we’re seeing here is partly about China securing stable food supplies for itself – the country already consumes about 50% of all pork globally and demand is rising sharply. In line with the government’s soon-to-elapse 12th Five Year Plan, Chinese businesses – state-owned or otherwise – have been investing in food assets around the world. Americans are far from alone in worrying about their producers being undercut or about Chinese corporations cornering markets. It may be tempting to shrug those concerns off as paranoid, but it’s probably judicious to wait until deals comparable to the Smithfield one are being sanctioned the other way round.

For America, making its own poor folks sick through turning swathes of itself into a hog farm capable of sustaining expanding waistlines in a formerly hermetic Communist state whose ruling party used to order its own agriculture along collective lines is perhaps both an achievement of sorts and further evidence of a crisis in the idea of American exceptionalism. After all, the whole point of an American-led world order was surely to encourage strains of American-style capitalism elsewhere. But being stung on the buttocks by globalisation was always a possibility too.