China carefully Scrutinizes U.S. Envoy’s … Chopstick Skills?

REUTERS/Carla Carniel
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a press conference to highlight her key priorities for the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meetings, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, February 27, 2024.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen landed in China this week with a raft of thorny issues to tackle. But it wasn’t her trade policy or stance on the poor state of U.S.-China relations that caught the attention of the Chinese public.

“Watching Yellen use chopsticks, it’s clear she’s a chopsticks master. She definitely eats Chinese food on a regular basis,” one user wrote on the microblog Weibo after news outlets posted a seven-second video clip of Yellen wielding said utensils at a Cantonese restaurant in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on Thursday night.

“U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen chooses authentic Cantonese cuisine and uses chopsticks well,” read one headline from state broadcaster China Central Television.

Chinese social media platforms on Friday were awash with details of Yellen’s first meal in China during a week-long visit aimed at improving U.S.-China ties and addressing what Washington sees as unfair Chinese trade practices. Hashtags related to Yellen’s dining choices drew almost 10 million views on Weibo.

The breathless state media coverage of her dining choices or dexterity with chopsticks reflects an effort by Beijing to cast Yellen’s visit in a positive light, especially to an increasingly anti-American Chinese public. It underlines how Beijing sees Yellen as perhaps its best hope for improving trade ties with Washington and helping its own ailing economy.

“Overall, Yellen’s visit to China sends a positive signal regarding the economic and trade relations between the two countries,” the state-run Global Times concluded in an editorial on Thursday. On Friday, Yellen met with the Guangdong governor, Wang Weizhong, and said the United States is not seeking to “decouple” or cut itself off from the Chinese economy.

In a separate meeting Friday with the American Chamber of Commerce, she said she would speak to Chinese officials about unfair trade practices against U.S. businesses. Before the trip, Yellen also said she would raise her concerns that overproduction in China is leading to a glut of exports, especially in electric vehicles and other clean technology.

Details of her visit in Chinese media reports include that Yellen ate at a storied restaurant in Guangzhou frequented by the likes of Chinese modernist writer Lu Xun. She was served a menu of more than a dozen dishes, including roast goose and barbecued pork, shrimp dumplings, iced sweet and sour pork and egg tarts.

“What she ordered was very representative of Cantonese dishes,” a staffer at the Tao Tao Ju restaurant told Guangzhou Daily News.

While the restaurant had arranged a private room for Yellen, her team requested that partitions be taken down so she could eat alongside other patrons, those reports noted – a detail that was confirmed by a Treasury official.

The Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News also ran a profile of Yellen’s enthusiasm for food, including a Yunnan restaurant she visited last year where she ate mushrooms that could have hallucinogenic properties if not cooked properly. (A mushroom casserole was also on the menu at Tao Tao Ju.)

“Official public opinion is quietly changing,” popular commentator and former journalist Zhang Feng wrote in an essay on WeChat. Zhang noted that the soft coverage of Yellen’s familiarity and appreciation of Chinese food – which some commentators attributed to her time in San Francisco – was reminiscent of how Chinese media reported on the visits of foreign leaders in the past.

In 2011, a surprise stop at a Beijing eatery by then-Vice President Biden was also closely reported: He ordered noodles, steamed dumplings and cold appetizers such as smashed cucumbers.

Still, years of worsening ties, as well as official comments and state media coverage demonizing the United States, have had an impact on Chinese public opinion. Under reports of Yellen’s dinner choices, internet users ridiculed the coverage, asking why there was nothing more substantial to report on.

“How about instead of focusing so much on what Yellen eats, you focus on how they plan to make things difficult for China,” one said.