Poison for the people, green food for the nomenklatura

But when the top members of the Communist Party sit down for lunch, they have no such worries – their food is grown on special farms that use no chemicals or additives.

People have long suspected the existence of this network to feed senior officials, both those in office and retired. However, its existence was confirmed earlier this year in a speech in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, by Zhu Yonglan, the director of the Center for the Supply of Special Foods to Central Organisations under the State Council. Its role is to provide food to senior officials of 94 ministries and bureaus of the central government.

The center manages large farms in 13 provinces, cities and autonomous regions across China which are guarded around the clock by armed police. Its priority is to provide safe and nutritious food. To this end, Zhu said, the farms do not use pesticides, fertilizer, hormones, chemical additives or genetically modified crops. The officials are not given tap water that may be polluted but only purified water. Since they have little time for exercise, diet is especially important to keep them in good health.

When Chinese websites carried news of Zhu’s speech, it produced an uproar at a time when ordinary people were facing the consequences of the melamine scandal. So far, four infants have died and at least 94,000 people have been sickened by consuming contaminated milk and infant food. The European Union, India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, the Maldives and Singapore, among others, have all banned various food exports from China because of the questions over the substance, a white powder consisting of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen with the ability to mimic higher protein levels in foods. Ingesting it in large doses over an extended period can cause kidney stones and other illnesses.

According to a recent report in the Nanfang Daily, the addition of melamine into animal feed started about five years ago in the aquatic farming industry and has since spread into other agricultural products including poultry, milk, biscuits and candies despite a ban imposed in June of 2007 after large numbers of dogs and cats in the United States died after it was added to pet foods imported from China. Some of China’s top dairies have been embroiled in the scandal.

“The scale of the problem proved that it was clearly not an isolated accident but a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits,” commented a spokesman of the World Health Organisation. He said that this was one of the largest food safety events it has had to deal with in recent years.

Angry consumers commented on the Internet. "If the central leaders did not have these special foods, China would not have poisoned food … If individuals have to rely on guesswork to ensure they eat safe food, this government should resign … This is worse than the evil feudal society. In the old days, we had to provide tribute to the Emperor -- but now all the top officials have it."

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When the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, it adopted from the Soviet Union a system of privilege and material goods for senior cadres, who live in special housing, inaccessible to the public and guarded by armed police: they have the use of holiday villas by the seaside and in scenic spots, with the top ones having their own villas for life. During the years of rationing that lasted until the 1980s, they had access to special shops – never marked -- which sold local and imported food and other goods not available in ordinary shops: the cigarettes which Mao Zedong smoked every day were not on the shelves of normal stores. They are looked after by maids, nurses, cooks and drivers provided by the state. In medical care, they also enjoy a quality of care unavailable to the general public. In Beijing, the 301 Military Hospital in the west of the city cares for senior officials.

Run by the People’s Liberation Army, the 301 Hospital has two sections: one for the public, which is busy and crowded, and the other for top officials, with a large number of well-trained staff and state-of-the-art equipment. Its corridors are quiet and spotless. The leaders also have access to the best Chinese doctors, Qi Gong teachers, nutritionists – and those who color their hair, ensuring it is all black, with no white or grey.

As a result of this comprehensive system, Chinese leaders live far longer than their compatriots. Mao died at 82, Deng Xiaoping at 92 and Chen Yun, a top economic strategist for much of the Communist era, two months short of his 90th birthday. Each day Chen used to eat 13 peanuts, two bananas and other fruit after meals. He ate sparingly at the main meals, with snacks at 10 am and 3 pm. Each day he ate 25 different kinds of food and took a 30-minute walk. He would receive visitors for only three minutes.

Chen rarely ate meat: the slogan among the nutritionists of the top leaders is “four legs (pork, beef or lamb) is not as good as two (poultry), two legs are not as good as one (mushrooms and other roots), and one is not as good as none (fish).”

Zhou Youguang, the scholar who invented the Pinyin system of Romanization for Mandarin, is 102 this year. China’s top genetic scientist, Tan Jiazhen, died on November 1, (2008) a month after celebrating his 100th birthday.

In the late 1980s, then-party chief Zhao Ziyang sought to abolish the special food system. That aroused strong opposition among his peers and, after his dismissal after the June 4, 1989 riots in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds of protestors are believed to have been killed. the idea was dropped. It has prospered ever since -- and the melamine scandal is another reason for maintaining it.