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article imageChina: Many stories within a Xinhua story about PLA food

By Paul Wallis     Oct 5, 2007 in World
As a global news source, Xinhua’s now major league. This PLA food article looks simple, but is part of a new stage in the evolution of China’s biggest agency. Choice and presentation of topic are something new and the content unexpected.
The food budget for a Chinese soldier is $1.45 a day. After pork prices doubled, the accountancy got tough. Given the amount of noise made about China’s military budget recently, this article’s very topical.
The Xinhua article starts with a Chinese officer making the point that it’s very hard to budget properly with 11 yuan (US $1.45) per day per man. Bearing in mind this a budget to feed adults, that’s pretty understandable.
The next part is a history of the PLA’s hardships and survival without a supply chain during the Revolution. It's actually very interesting reading. A memorable quote from those days has been revived to describe the diet of the times:
The red rice, a coarse staple, was eaten without much seasoning in 1927, and the pumpkin soup was commonly described as "not revolutionary enough" as hunger usually returned very soon after its consumption.”
The article then moves on to China’s increased military budget, not entirely unexpectedly. The new budget is supposed to improve the food situation, combat price hikes, cover salaries and pensions, and to supply uniforms, and fund training.
The story next describes nutritional regimes in the PLA, which seem to be based on a protein/staples mix, and would make sense to anyone who’s ever tried planning a diet scientifically.
There’s even a cultural dichotomy:
“ "More soldiers choose rice because there are more southerners, though we are all in Beijing, in northern China," says Zhang from the northern province of Shanxi. Usually people from southern China prefer rice and northern Chinese prefer flour-based staples such as steamed buns, noodles and rolls.”
Much of the rest of the piece is devoted to the modernization of the dietary regime, but one interesting remark is made to the effect that outside the PLA, it would be difficult to get such variety of food on 11 yuan a day. Army buyers spend the morning haggling with sellers. Finance is managed internally by units, and menus discussed. Not quite the common image of the PLA, is it?
This story’s about more than food in the PLA. I don't know if it was intentional, but the world hasn’t generally heard that pork prices in China have doubled. That is big news. What drives China’s domestic prices affects their production costs. If their domestic prices are rising, the world needs to know. Food in particular is always an indicator of the real state of a domestic economy. So why is the information being delivered this way?
While the insight into the PLA’s ration system is interesting to military buffs, the procurement system and the culture it implies are much more so. The PLA isn’t exactly in the habit of advertising its internal issues. It’s a bit like a tiger admitting it uses hair coloring and tie dyeing to get that striped effect. Not information you’d expect to get.
Also extremely interesting is the editorial approach to China’s new military spending, which has been a topical whipping post recently for some American commentary. In the past, China used to simply dismiss or ignore Western insinuations about its military. This is a very new tone from China.
I wouldn’t dismiss it as pure low key propaganda. The admission of the food budget issues is quite unusual. There are some obvious adjustments being made at that basal level. The Chinese military, as a matter of fact, could easily justify its new budget to practically anyone by just pointing out the need for upgrades across its inventory. This approach is quite unprecedented. It also takes quite a bit of sting out of the American portrayal of the PLA.
Far from clumsy.
Xinhua itself is getting highly active in its presentation of China and Chinese policies. Xinhua has recently done lengthy articles on the Dalai Lama and China’s response to the Burma crisis, which could have come out of a diplomatic writing manual with no comment on China’s relationship with Burma, as usual.
(Note: the Dalai Lama article contains some communist rhetoric in a style which dates back to the 1950s, if somewhat modernized. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth a look, but it’s pretty verbose. Obviously they haven't got the styles fully sorted out yet for Western consumption.)
The Business and Science sections are looking very promotional, and there's a very strong feed of information about the West, which would seem to indicate their preferred version of foreign news. Asian news is prominent.
Actually, it’s all being very well done. Looks like China’s soft sell is very thoroughly orchestrated, and the Xinhua erhu is sounding pretty sweet, in general. As a diet of news and information, it’s pretty well balanced, and hard to fault, even when you know about the strong controls over the internet the PRC is operating.
The Chinese aren’t making many mistakes. It would be advisable if people shooting their mouths off about China recognized that. The foot in mouth diet is very much an acquired taste.
More about China, Xinhua, Pla military budget
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