Recently, I was invited to the Beijing apartment of a Chinese friend in his mid-20s. An attentive host, he brought out a tray of washed grapes, but looked dubious when I was about to simply eat one. Because the grapes were almost surely sprayed with too many pesticides—and perhaps other dangerous chemicals—he explained that it was foolish to eat them directly and urged me to peel each grape first.
His reflexive wariness about food grown or packaged in China is hardly unique among college-educated Beijing residents. Some 38 percent of Chinese respondents told a recent Pew Research Center poll (PDF) that food safety is a “very big problem” in China. That’s up significantly from 2008, when only 12 percent of respondents agreed.
The Pew research team, which conducted 3,226 face-to-face interviews this spring, uncovered rising levels of concern about sundry public health issues in China. Fully 47 percent of respondents rated air pollution a “very big problem,” and 40 percent said the same of water pollution. That’s up from 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in 2008. Poll respondents who were younger (under age 30), wealthy, and living in cities were the most likely to express worry about food safety and product safety.
Among the 17 topics the Pew survey covered, the very top concern was inflation—with 59 percent of respondents calling it a major problem. That’s followed by “corrupt officials” (53 percent) and the “rich-poor gap” (52 percent). Despite these anxieties, an overwhelming 82 percent of Chinese respondents said they believed that when today’s children are adults, they will be “better off” financially than their parents. At least they see some glimmer in the smog.