Yellen’s dining choices in China aim to show friendly image, but sincerity needed to stabilize economic ties
Published: Apr 08, 2024 09:26 PM
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (second left) and US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns (left) sample beer at the Jing-A brewery in Beijing on April 8, 2024. Photo: VCG

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (second left) and US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns (left) sample beer at the Jing-A brewery in Beijing on April 8, 2024. Photo: VCG

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is well known in China for her high-profile posting within the US government, including as a former head of the US Federal Reserve. But in her last two visits to China, her choices of different types of Chinese food - and her proficiency in chopsticks made headlines both in China and abroad.

Yellen is on a high-stakes visit to China, as part of increased talks between high-level Chinese and US officials aimed at stabilizing bilateral ties. The trip, her second since July 2023, has been viewed as another positive sign that the world's two biggest economies are continuing to communicate despite differences on a wide range of issues. 

But one thing stands out during Yellen's whirlwind trip that includes meetings with high-level Chinese officials and US businesses: Just as how closely watched the content of her talks, what she chose to eat also gained widespread attention.

On April 4, after she arrived in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, Yellen and several other US officials were spotted dining at famous Cantonese restaurant Taotaoju1880. On Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, a topic about Yellen's first meal at the time-honored Cantonese restaurant garnered more than 7.30 million views as of Monday. Many were also impressed by Yellen's chopstick skills.  

The menu for the dinner was quickly shared. The group ordered a selection of iconic dishes including century-old roast goose, chilled sweet and sour pork, crispy tofu, and an assortment of Cantonese dim sum, featuring Taotaoju1880's renowned shrimp dumplings and red rice sausage. Meanwhile, a staff member at the restaurant said that Yellen insisted on sitting in the hall area instead of a private room, the reported.

Then on Saturday night, Yellen arrived in Beijing and her first meal in the Chinese capital also immediately drew great attention. Yellen and company went directly to a Sichuan restaurant in Dongcheng district. Staff at the restaurant gifted their American guest Sichuan embroidery, a noted part of China's intangible cultural heritage. In return, Yellen offered souvenir coins bearing her name, reported.

Yellen, accompanied by the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, also went to the popular Jing-A brewery in Beijing to sample beer on Monday, her latest show up in a public place that immediately grabbed the attention.

Yellen also made headlines during her previous trip to China in July 2023, after she was spotted enjoying Yunnan food at a famed restaurant in Beijing, which specializes in many types of mushroom dishes. After reports of Yellen's presence sparked widespread interests in the restaurant, CNN, a US news media outlet, ran feature piece titled: "Mushroom diplomacy: US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sets off culinary craze in China."

Food diplomacy might be the more accurate term now as Yellen has also tried various delicacies from different parts of China. The phrase is also apt as Yellen apparently tried to engage in public diplomacy, even though she is mostly tasked with talks on economic issues. Whether by eating out in public places or interacting with students at Peking University, the US Treasury Secretary clearly also tried to put forward an amicable image for the Chinese public, even as she tried to look tough among US businesses and politicians in Washington, where anti-China hostility runs rampant.

In talks with Chinese officials, Yellen repeatedly stated that the US does not seek "decoupling" from China, a statement also made by various US leaders, including President Joe Biden. On Sunday, she also noted that with joint efforts from both sides, US-China relations have been put on a more stable footing, and that the US appreciates the progress made in US-China economic dialogue and cooperation, according to Xinhua.

Friendly image, tough talks

However, during the same trip, Yellen also repeated various claims that have been hyped by other US officials and media outlets about China's market and industrial policies. On Monday, as she wrapped up "difficult conversations" with Chinese officials, Yellen said that the Biden administration will push China to change an industrial policy that poses a threat to US jobs, the Associated Press reported. 

Yellen clearly made what she claimed to be "Chinese overcapacity" a focus of her trip. On Friday, while addressing a gathering of the US business community in Guangzhou, she asserted that China's industrial policies were leading to overcapacity, which can "lead to overconcentration of supply chains, posing a risk to global economic resilience."

Some US and European officials have been hyping accusations of overcapacity in areas such as electric vehicles, and Yellen's decision to make that a focus of trip sent a negative signal. For many in China and around the world who are closely following the US' trade and technological campaign against China, claims such as "overcapacity" often portend protectionist and crackdowns against Chinese products and businesses. If the US holds to this approach of cracking down on Chinese products and businesses based on accusations, it would not bode well for bilateral trade ties, as China won't sit idly by. 

During the talks with Yellen, senior Chinese officials expressed grave concern over US economic and trade measures restricting China and responded fully to the issue of production capacity. On Sunday in meeting with Yellen, Chinese Premier Li Qiang urged the US to view production capacity issues objectively and dialectically from a market-oriented and global perspective.

In pointed remarks, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao on Sunday offered a strong rebuttal to accusations of overcapacity, saying Chinese EV manufacturers' rapid development is a result of constant tech innovations, well-established supply chain system and market competition, not subsidies, according to Xinhua. 

Speaking at an event in Paris, France, Wang said accusations of "overcapacity" by the US and Europe are groundless, and the Chinese government will actively support enterprises in safeguarding their legitimate rights and interests.

China's response is in line with expectations, given that some US officials are constantly moving to target every Chinese industry that is gaining global market share, even as they repeatedly and publicly state that they are not trying to contain China's rise and they are not seeking to decouple from China. 

Though talks between Chinese and US officials have been increasing, and Washington's sincerity remains in huge doubt with many in China. But sincerity is the most crucial thing in efforts to stabilize bilateral ties - far more important than whatever attempts made just to project a friendly image. Hospitality is a key part of Chinese culture. The Chinese people welcome anyone from anywhere to come and enjoy our food, but that does not mean we won't push back against groundless accusations and outright crackdowns.