And it's far better than the food they serve in steerage.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
The experience of flying China’s flagship carrier Air China — with its starchy music, its blithe stewardesses, and its strait-jacketed seats — is reminiscent of a local U.S. airline: better than driving, though not by much. At least, that’s how it is in economy. I’ve probably flown Air China dozens of times, and like many sitting in steerage, I’ve wondered both what happens at the front of the plane, and how the airlines convince people to pay several times the regular price for a slightly bigger seat and slightly more palatable food.
Air China, it turns out, amidst the promotions and advertisements common among most airlines, once offered a dish on its business class menu “specially created for senior government officials.” The menu, passed from a friend who kept it after a flight and who asked to remain anonymous, is a few years old. It’s unclear whether they still do this — Air China did not respond to a request for comment, and an Internet search for the phrase “this entrée is specially created for senior government officials” in English and Chinese did not return any results.
It’s also unclear what’s special about braised flounder in bean sauce, but it’s certainly better than the sesame beef pastry wrapped in tinfoil that stewardesses would gingerly place on my tray table on many of my Air China flights.
During Chinese food scandals, Western and Chinese media often criticize Beijing for the unfairness of top Chinese government officials eating better food. “Amid milk scare, China’s elite get special food,” read a headline for the Associated Press in September 2008, a few weeks after top Chinese dairies were found to have sold contaminated milk. And in May 2011, respected Chinese publication Southern Weekend published an expose on organic food available only to government officials — not long after a slew of food scandals, such as pork sold as beef after being soaked in a detergent additive. Problems persist. In January, Wal-Mart recalled donkey meat that had been mixed with the DNA of other animals. And in October 2013, 30 people on an Air China flight fell sick after eating those same beef pastries.
Conversely, Chinese state media will occasionally run articles wondering, in a more reverential tone, what Chinese leaders eat. In September 2013, the popular news portal Netease republished an article about “the secrets of long-life” for leaders. It really isn’t that Chinese leaders “eat all sorts of exotic foodstuffs from distant locales,” the article stated, “but rather less meat and more coarse grains.”
Li Ruifen, the former head of the nutrition department at the Military General Hospital of Beijing, a hospital frequented by top officials, is quoted saying that when the leaders do eat meat, the fewer legs the better: Four-legged animals like pigs, cows, and lambs are not as good as chicken and geese. (Li inexplicably considers fungi a “one-legged” animal.) And fish, Li states, is the healthiest of all.