D&G Chopsticks Incident And China's Quest For Cultural Power

A meal in Guilin, China
A meal in Guilin, China

WASHINGTON — My first encounter with China was, oddly, at the top of the Empire State Building.

I was a young student, and climbing to the top of the Manhattan landmark was the last thing I did before returning home from my first visit to the U.S., where I now live. I was not particularly thrilled, but was happy that I did it; still, I never went back. Anyway, just as I was preparing to descend, the Empire State opened another horizon to me. I was standing in line for the elevator when a large group of Asian tourists joined the line next to me. I took notice, stepping from the line to watch them interacting. From the little I knew about China, the badges of Mao on their blue uniforms told me this group of people, wearing cotton shoes, some of them silently holding hands, came from the other side of the world. When the elevator arrived, something unexpected happened: the Chinese group refused to step into it. With extreme politeness, they invited the crowd standing behind them to step up and fill the elevator to its full capacity. After the door closed, the Chinese group retook the front position, now holding it firmly, waiting for a new elevator. I don't remember if I asked them why on earth had they refused to get into the elevator, but the only explanation I found was that they did not want to split the group; they wanted to wait until there was enough space for all of them to fit in the elevator. They wanted to travel together.

Other than what I thought was their cute image — calm and neatly dressed, but of monolithic appearance, almost ageless — I was stunned by their level of discipline and organization. Someone among them must have learned the elevator capacity beforehand and instructed the group. Or perhaps they prepared detailed travel instructions in Beijing so they could anticipate the great American chaos, elevators included. However, there was no shoving nor elbowing, not even a minimum effort to force their way in or squeeze the occupants into the elevator's corners. No, the group stoically observed the situation, knew what was coming and what they needed to do as a result. How was it possible? They seemed to be from a different planet. What could their country possibly be like?

During my long periods of exploring and studying China, these questions were answered in various, complex ways that I will not explain here. What matters is that the short episode in front of the elevator at the top of the Empire State Building ignited my interest in the country. Two years after this brief encounter, something like an extraterrestrial experience, I set out on my first long travel to China. I stayed there for three years.

My point here, though, is a different one. The monolithic looking group of Chinese people in front of the elevator represented a small body of the biggest existing social experiment on the planet. They were coming from a country that the rest of the world linked to the image of its charismatic leader, while its truthful identity and tumultuous life experience reflected a radically different, and new, social order. Mao's China attempted to introduce an economic model that was to become an alternative to the dominant center of world capitalism. Along with a self-sufficient economy, China was exercising a series of new social practices that sprung out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution — from people's communes to its anti-psychiatry movement — and deeply influenced western student movements during massive revolts in the late sixties. It also inspired new layers of intellectuals, French structuralism among them.

This is why, for me, this little group of perhaps 20 Chinese tourists embodied an extremely complex identity, written subtly all over them. Did they belong to the generation of new socialist people that the liberal world expected to step out of the cold east since the Soviet Union's October revolution? What were they doing there? It was stunning, fascinating even. It must have been mind-blowing for them to watch Manhattan from the top of one of its tallest buildings, and compare the view to the rural Chinese capital, where even concrete sculptures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin in Tiananmen Square were considered tall. There were almost no cars where they came from, but instead the smooth and continuous flow of cyclists navigating the city.

Fashion shoot on the fly in Beijing —Photo: Matthias Rosenkranz

Four decades later, China no longer needs to climb to the Empire State Building to see its future. The nation has grown into an economic powerhouse capable of buying any American landmark if it wants to. Today's China is a powerful country, so I was again stunned when ten days ago I listened to a short podcast by French journalist Pierre Haski featuring a story about chopsticks and Dolce & Gabbana. In an "incident" called "Leçon de marketing: on ne plaisante pas avec le sentiment national chinois' (Marketing lesson: do not mess with Chinese national sentiment), Haski describes a sinful blunder committed by the major Italian fashion label, which presented a series of short videos on social networks ahead of a prestigious fashion show in Shanghai.

"This is where everything slipped, humor hardly passing between borders. The videos showed a Chinese woman, elegant, facing Italian dishes like pizza and spaghetti, and not knowing how to eat them with chopsticks. A man's voice explains how to use chopsticks for pasta or pizza.

"It was not appreciated at all. Inflammatory comments invaded the powerful Chinese social networks, at best describing the images as orientalist and condescending, at worst as offensive or racist. A veritable avalanche followed, pushing Chinese stars to reconsider their participation in the fashion show, which was finally canceled at the last minute.

"The controversy was the number one topic on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, with more than 120 million reads by mid-afternoon, as celebrities, including "Memoirs of a Geisha" movie star Zhang Ziyi, posted critical comments about the brand."

One might say, "Who cares about chopsticks and D&G!" But as the commentary came from a respected journalist, now editor, I gave it a second thought. Was it an attempt at connection lost in translation? I was struck by an epiphany. When had chopsticks had such a symbolic value for Chinese? The wooden, plastic, ivory, metal (in Korea), silver or, in the imperial court, golden sticks are tools for eating, as much as hands, or forks and knives are. What turned this everyday eating tool into an untouchable treasure of national heritage? In a country that for decades has been planning and building an empire, what have chopsticks to do with its future domination of the world? Nothing.

It is not a simple clash between disrespectful market strategy and the new consumption society.

Whatever language the world will speak in the future, people will still use chopsticks, hands or western silverware to enjoy their food and feed their stomachs. If the Chinese stop dressing in D&G — the main online stores like Alibaba are already boycotting their products — and jump back into the garments they were wearing when I first saw them, it doesn't really matter. It would be a decision to be respected. And if D&G goes bankrupt tomorrow because of their bad marketing, as Haski has it, it will be their own fault. It's not the first time D&G has drawn fire in China and elsewhere. It might even be their style, their aggressive strategy, meant to get more attention and therefore slice off a bigger market share.

But the chopstick incident is not a simple clash between disrespectful market strategy and the new consumption society. As the majority of media, including the New York Times, tried to explain: "The incident underscores the risks for global brands in China, where influential online citizens often respond rapidly to perceived cultural slights and can have a major impact on firms seeking to lure the country's big-spending shoppers."

All of the above is of little importance compared to the backlash of nationalism that came in reaction to decades-long policy. "Force-fed to China's people through programs such as the ‘Patriotic Education Campaign" (for all college students)," Susan L. Shirk writes in her book China, Fragile Superpower, "nationalism nurtures popular resentments against Japan and America and an expectation that Taiwan would soon be reunified."

She goes on: "Look at China's reaction to the food, toy and toothpaste scandals created by shoddy products: Instead of acknowledging the concerns of Western consumers, the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda organs have gone into attack mode, branding these worries as a campaign to isolate and weaken China. The problem," Shirk says, "is that this form of nationalism has boxed the CCP and its leaders into a corner."

The analysis indicates that Chinese authorities no longer need to feed the people with vibrant patriotism. Extreme patriotism, edging closely along lines of nationalism, comes by itself now, from grassroots, bursting up and through millions of otherwise disparate people via social media. In the clash with the Italian fashion giant, 120 million protesters got involved. The campaign against Italian racism had been ongoing for a few days when this marvelous piece in the South China Morning Post, affiliated with (both owned by Jack Ma of Alibaba), used a very transparent description of Chinese sentiment:

"The ads feature a giggling Chinese model attempting to eat oversized Italian dishes — a tabletop pizza, a cannoli bigger than a man's forearm and a punch bowl of red-sauce pasta — with a pair of chopsticks, as a male narrator pokes fun at her inability to deal with the "huge" food using her "little sticks'.

"The videos were understandably interpreted as racist and condescending, leading to Chinese calls for a D&G boycott and — after co-founder Stefano Gabbana apparently sent a series of Instagram messages calling China a "country of shit" — prompted the cancellation of the event and a public begging of forgiveness from the designers. (Gabbana is seen in screenshots using the emoji representing a pile of poo instead of writing "shit".)

"In a video, Dolce & Gabbana's founders, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce, apologize to the Chinese people and ask for forgiveness.

"But if anyone thought a mere apology would cause the storm to recede, they were sorely mistaken.

"The "chopstick incident" appears to be leading to the real-time disintegration of the storied design house, which books a third of its sales in China.

"Netizens are posting videos of themselves using D&G clothing to wipe toilets. Retailers have pulled D&G items off of store shelves and online catalogs. And, in perhaps the biggest sign that things are unlikely to blow over anytime soon, on November 23, China's primary state-owned television channel CCTV unleashed a lushly produced response video valorizing chopsticks as "carrying the emotions of China over thousands of years."

Was this about the chopsticks? As Inkstonenews describes it, the matter boiled down to huge Italian food and little chopsticks, which is to say, it's about cultural power. It snowballed to to the point of prompting the national television video on the traditional use of chopsticks. As Shirk observed, this is not the first time Chinese authorities find themselves backed into a corner, forced by its internet-citizen masses to join in yet another splash of daily nationalism. It is not an easy problem to untangle since the same sentiment is borne from soccer games or the "liberation" of Taiwan. The world is waiting for a stronger China, but wouldn't it be nice if the Chinese regained some of the curiosity and capacity for listening to the wider world — as back then at the old Empire (State) building?

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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