BEIJING - These are good days for China. Not so much for the United States -- or Sino-American relations.
After Edward Snowden left Hong Kong unhindered last week, the angered Americans at first threatened this would have "negative consequences" on relations between the two superpowers. Snowden’s departure had delivered a blow to "mutual confidence," the Americans declared.
The reproach must have seemed strange to Chinese ears -- after all, what this whistleblower revealed was U.S. espionage on a vast scale that included spying on China’s networks. Last Tuesday, Beijing’s People’s Daily called the U.S. a "crazy meddler" in other countries’ networks.
Snowden achieved something unusual: He not only gave a surprised Beijing an instant propaganda tool over Washington but one that the Chinese government should be able to milk for years. The People’s Daily is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and behind all the pretended outrage, the Schadenfreude was unmistakable. The United States had turned itself from supposed human rights model into a "manipulator" of the Internet it drives.
Snowden's fearlessness, the paper said, had "ripped away Washington’s mask of hypocrisy."
Otherwise a certain amount of reserve about the Snowden case was making itself felt in Beijing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had an unruffled reaction to the American reproaches: the criticism was unfounded, a spokeswoman said, and Hong Kong had "acted according to the law."
And the government news agency Xinhua, that had earlier lashed out at the United States as the "biggest villain of our era" was now calling for level-headedness and cooperation: China and the U.S. should "sit down and talk about mutual mistrust."
Beijing can afford to be laid back about this -- because the winner in the drama is China.
Not many people doubt that it was Beijing’s decision to let Snowden go. "Hong Kong‘s government had virtually no say in this," said Snowden’s lawyer Albert Ho. "It was instructed not to detain him at the airport."
Contrary to what the Americans are assuming, it appears that it was not China’s intention to give maximum offense to the United States. Giving Snowden up to them was never really an option for a government that for years has been making the point that it can say “no” to Washington. But it chose to make short shrift of the situation, rather than opt for the long-term poisoning of the climate between it and the United States that an open-ended stay by Snowden in Chinese territory would have brought on.
The "H" word
Anyway, Snowden had already delivered up enough gifts to China. “Hypocrite” in association with the United States was one of the most used words over the last few days on the country’s social networks. And even if some users like blogger Wen Yunchao praised Snowden as a hero and expressed the hope that he would have a Chinese imitator who would "shine light on China’s "Great Firewall"," Snowden’s revelations are having the opposite effect: the country’s unpopular censors are actually getting some kudos.
Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is one of the architects of the censorship wall whose cunning control mechanisms keep the web at bay for Chinese users and prevent them from accessing sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Because of this work, when speaking in public he has had shoes thrown at him by young Chinese. But now he can say he always knew it. Last year he even warned in interviews against using foreign equipment in telecommunications. All of a sudden some Chinese are seeing the blocking of access to Facebook and others as “protection of our citizens from the grip of foreign powers.”
“China protects its citizens,” another user opined after the first PRISM revelations two weeks ago.
China has by far the most closely monitored Internet in the world. In March, Reporters Without Borders noted that 69 bloggers had been jailed. Now state media like the Beijing Global Times are saying that the country will under no circumstances become "the biggest fish in America's net" and that a major priority is "building up Internet security," a task it says has unfortunately until now been limited to a certain degree "by Western public opinion."
That sounds like even more closed doors – and less business – for western software and telecommunications companies. The share prices of Chinese Internet security companies have shot up. The National Business Daily reported that Chinese telecom provider Unicom had, last year already, secretly switched all Cisco-made routers in a network node in Wuxi to Chinese-made equipment.
All of a sudden the American suspicions with regard to Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei appear in a whole new light: Some Washington insiders, writes China observer Bill Bishop in his newsletter Sinocism, fear that China’s government could start using Huawei the way Washington uses the NSA.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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