China to frugal US officials: Who you trying to impress?

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An editorial in Chinese state-controlled media accused US officials of using cheap eats as a publicity stunt (article in Chinese) during high-profile diplomatic visits to China. The latest offender, according to the state-run Global Times, is US Treasury secretary Jack Lew who spent just 109 yuan ($17.50) on lunch for him and two colleagues at a local restaurant in Beijing last week.

At a time when Chinese officials are coming under attack for extravagance and an austerity campaign is underway, Chinese state media may have felt like they needed to respond to the detailed coverage of Lew’s spartan ways in Chinese media. Lew didn’t eat in a private room, and ordered the cheapest tea on the menu, prompting one blogger (paywall) to write, “What emotion are you trying to evoke in our celestial officials?” according to the Wall Street Journal. (Bloggers sometimes mockingly call China’s Communist Party the “celestial empire,” a reference to China’s feudal days.)

Lew (at center of photo) dining with the people in Beijing.
Lew (at center of photo) dining with the people in Beijing.
Image: Taikung.cn

The frugal dining apparently did not evoke good feelings. The Global Times editorial, about 4,300 characters long (or about 1,700 words when translated to English), details how in 2011 US vice president Joe Biden ordered a cheap bowl of noodles from a hole-in-the-wall shop. Yet on a trip to Europe, he spent over $1 million, including $585,000 for a night at Hotel Intercontinental. ”Why is it that when American officials come to China they’re suddenly thrifty and as soon as they leave, they’re extravagant?,” the publication opines (here’s a summary in English.)

It’s hard to say the attempt to sway public opinion is proving effective, especially since it’s not the first time Chinese media have tried to tamp down the public appeal of US officials. When US ambassador to China Gary Locke carried his own luggage on a 2011 trip to Beijing and tried to purchase coffee at an airport with a coupon, state media unsuccessfully warned Chinese not to fall for his neocolonialist ways. In response to today’s editorial, one blogger wrote on Sina Weibo, “I call on Chinese officials to also try a little more modesty.”