Dumpling Diplomacy: The U.S. Treasury Secretary’s Beijing Lunch Enchants China

Jacob Lew's humble lunch has become an Internet sensation in China, where ordinary people are growing disgusted by the ostentatious ways of Communist Party officials.

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Andy Wong / AP

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, center, watches as embassy staff members order the foods during their lunch at a Chinese dumpling restaurant in Beijing, March 19, 2013.

My older son adores the pea-shoot-and-mountain-yam dumplings. His little brother prefers the jiaozi stuffed with minced pork and fennel fronds. My husband cannot resist the bacon-and-spicy-pickled-radish variety. Bao Yuan Dumpling House, a modest eatery near the U.S. embassy in Beijing, has long been a favorite among foodie expats for its mind-boggling variety of dumplings available at very affordable prices.

On March 19, humble Bao Yuan — with its dusty red lanterns, cracked linoleum and heaping bowls of raw garlic cloves should you wish to spice up the meal — played host to a rather august personage: U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who was in town for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that ranged from China’s trade surplus to cybersecurity concerns. The bill for the table of three — which feasted on a tofu salad and my older son’s favorite pea-shoot-and-mountain-yam dumplings, washed down with jasmine tea — amounted to just $17. I’d wager the new Treasury Secretary was pleased by both the quality of the jiaozi and the price tag — although next time I’d urge him to try the mushroom-medley dumplings too.

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Lew’s lunch soon became an Internet sensation in China, where Weibo, a domestic Twitter-like service, has turned into a clearinghouse for disgust at the ostentatious ways of Communist Party officials. Lavish banquets, showy cars and luxury watches complete the stereotype of the life of a modern-day Chinese cadre, and a procession of Weibo exposés has downed some of the more corrupt (or careless) officials. By contrast, there was the Treasury Secretary of the world’s richest country digging into food more fit for a peasant — albeit a peasant with a discerning taste in dumplings. “Such frugality, no special procurements, no Maotai,” wrote one Weibo commenter, referring to the famously pricey Chinese alcohol. “Our civil servants could never endure this.”

Xi, who earlier this month inherited the country’s presidency at the annual National People’s Congress (NPC), has made combating corruption and official abuse of power one of his early campaigns. In a country where income inequality is widening and anger at the extravagant ways of officialdom is bubbling over, Xi’s public stand makes sound political sense. Late last year, when Xi toured southern China on his first trip as the new Communist Party chief, the state media took pains to show him lugging his own plate at a company cafeteria. Soon, the state propaganda effort advised that Chinese officials eschew expensive delicacies like shark’s fin, abalone and Maotai for a simpler “four dishes and one soup, with no alcohol.” Be still the grumbling stomach.

On Sunday, newly sworn-in Premier Li Keqiang continued the theme, pronouncing that the “government should be the guardian of fairness” and promising that in the near future government coffers would not be used to build new halls or guesthouses; the number of people on the government’s payroll will decrease; and the number of overseas trips taken by government cadres and the purchase of official vehicles will also diminish.

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The austerity talk notwithstanding, it’s worth noting that while the 12-day NPC was under way in Beijing this month, flooding the capital with hundreds of rubber-stamp legislators and Communist Party advisers, the number of online campaigns against official excess dropped dramatically. The decline was presumably a function of industrious censors, who preferred not to have such topics go viral at such a sensitive time.

The unassuming habits of American officials have enchanted the online Chinese community before. When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Beijing in 2011, he was taken for lunch to a local haunt famous for its pork liver and intestine soup. (He chose a bowl of noodles, among other treats, instead of the restaurant’s trademark offal soup.) The same year, when U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke was at the Seattle airport on his way to his Beijing posting, he stopped at a Starbucks. A photo of Locke, with a backpack slung over his shoulders and ordering his own coffee, quickly circulated online. In China, top officials would rarely choose a self-serve option; many are shadowed by personal assistants who are dubbed “bag carriers.” Locke was held up on Weibo as a model civil servant.

Back at Bao Yuan Dumpling House, the staff was still amazed by Lew’s patronage. Given its proximity to several embassies, Bao Yuan gets a fair number of diplomats, says staff member Zhong Guanglong, who noted that Lew arrived at precisely 12:16 p.m. “We have many foreign customers, including the American ambassador,” he recalled, “but I have never seen a minister come here, so I was really surprised.” And do Chinese cadres ever frequent Bao Yuan? “As far as I remember, I have not seen any Chinese officials ever come here,” says Zhong. Too bad. They’re missing out on some fine dumplings.

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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