Harvest rice field in Xiangtan, Hunan, China
Gong Jing

For the past six months, the Chinese media has been reporting that rice grown in the south-central Hunan Province contains unacceptable levels of cadmium, a carcinogenic heavy metal.

Last month, an inspection of samples in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, revealed that more than half the batches of cadmium-tainted rice came from three rice mills in the neighboring Hunan Province.

Hunan rice is facing an unprecedented crisis of consumer confidence.

There is an old Chinese proverb dating from the late Ming period that says: “When Hunan reaps its harvest, all under heaven want for nothing.” The province produces 11 million tons of rice every year – 11% of China’s annual rice crop. However since March, there has been a public panic about Hunan rice.

In many parts in Guangdong Province, it is now difficult to find any Hunan rice. The majority of Hunan’s rice producers have stopped their operations, either partially or totally. The panic has also spread to the rest of the country.

It has been months since the issue first came to light, but Hunan Province officials have stayed silent. State-owned Xinhua news agency says they have been asking for an interview with province authorities since February, but all their requests have been denied. This silence has to some extent exacerbated the spread of panic.

It’s practically impossible for all Hunan rice to be contaminated. Researchers say their sampling shows that 65% of the rice tested in selected samples had unacceptable levels of cadmium. Other researchers say their findings are more in the 20-40% range.

In effect, most Hunan rice does not have excessive levels of cadmium. There is plenty of premium-quality rice in Hunan province that shouldn’t be targeted by bans and boycotts.

Furthermore, the duty of Hunan Province authorities is to inform the public and tell the truth about the situation, specifying the exact proportion of rice that was found to be contaminated.

Wide-ranging testing and transparency

Hunan needs to learn from the experience of Guangdong province. In February, Guangzhou’s Nanfang Daily newspaper reported that cereal giant Shenzhen Cereals Group had bought 10,000 tons of contaminated Hunan rice in 2009. After inspectors found high levels of cadmium, the rice was supposed to be used for industrial purposes only. However, said the newspaper, the company only disposed of 1% of the tainted rice and sold the rest to consumers at a discount price.

After the Nanfang Daily report, Guangdong authorities launched a wide-ranging inspection of rice mills and markets in over 20 cities across the province. They discovered nearly 200 batches of tainted rice and published their origins as well as their brands. The contaminated rice was dealt with according to the law.

Obviously, Hunan authorities need urgently to conduct their own wide-ranging inspection across the province. This is the right attitude – not to mention the duty – of a government that is responsible for the public health of its constituents.

This inspection must be truly wide-ranging and should apply to everyone. To gain the trust of the public, credible civil third parties should to be involved in the inspection. The local food control authorities and oversight bodies could preside over the whole operation.

The inspection would have two effects:

First, it would serve to expose the real problems. A lot of "cadmium rice" will be found, which will bring to light issues such as agricultural soil contamination and other problems related to rice cultivation. The current situation is serious, and Hunan authorities can no longer hide from these issues.

Second, it would serve to clear the untainted rice brands, which have been unjustly put in the same back as the contaminated brands. Hunan authorities should allow the producers of untainted rice to put an indication or label on their packaging saying that their rice has passed inspections. This would allow high-quality Hunan rice to be once again sold all over China.

In the future, it is necessary for Hunan Province to make cadmium testing a mandatory thing, and that all its rice is inspected. This would go a long way to restoring the public’s trust.

In any case, Hunan authorities need to talk to the public openly about the cadmium issue – without any further delay.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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