In China, Dead Pigs With Morning Tea Is Nothing New

There are worse things than learning, as the residents of Shanghai did this week, that the source of the water for your morning shower and tea was contaminated by at least 5,916 dead pigs. You might find out that lamb you ate for dinner was duck soaked in toxic chemicals. That those dumplings you had as a late-night snack were fried in oil recovered from a gutter running beside an open sewer. Or worse yet, that the baby formula you’ve fed your newborn is laced with a plasticizer that damages kidneys.

For Shanghai’s 20 million residents, and indeed for China’s entire population, these recurring food-safety nightmares form the backdrop to their daily lives. Social media platforms are home to never-ending discussions of food scandals. State- and Communist Party-owned newspapers report the incidents with diligence and frequency. After a while it becomes a disgusting blur, the culinary equivalent of the ever-present smog that has rendered blue skies rare events.

So when, on March 5, the story broke that a few dozen dead pigs had appeared under a bridge in Shanghai, only local papers treated it as news. When later that week 900 pigs were found floating in the Huangpu River, the supply of much of Shanghai’s water, it was news -- but only occasionally of the front-page variety. After all, the Huangpu River is a working river, with all that entails in developing Asia: pollution, garbage and the occasional floating carcass (dead birds and rats aren’t unusual; dogs and cats, more so).

It was only on March 10, as reporters started offering larger numbers of pigs retrieved from the river -- ticking up from 1,200 to 3,323 to 5,916 in three days -- and grotesque photos circulated on microblogs, that the residents of Shanghai and the national media began to pay attention.

Beyond the obvious, Shanghai residents had a few additional reasons to be concerned. First, one of the areas from which the pigs were alleged to have originated was also rumored to have suffered from an epidemic that killed off as many as 20,000 pigs in January and February. However, nobody had ever heard of the problem until the corpses started flowing -- a fact that’s terrifying regardless of whether the epidemic rumors are true. Second, at least some of the pigs pulled from the Huangpu River were found to be infected by a nasty pig-specific virus (that apparently doesn’t infect humans). And third, government officials are doing their best to downplay and deflect blame for the incident, a probable sign that something is amiss.

On March 12, an unnamed official associated with the Agricultural Department in Zhejiang province, a likely source for the pigs, was quoted in Caijing, a financial news publication, saying that the 3,000 pigs froze to death. “Pig cold resistance is low,” the unnamed official said. “And an increase in the number of deaths is normal.” Elsewhere in state-owned media, the director of the same department explained that farmers in Zhejiang are “in the habit” of dumping dead pigs in rivers.

None of this was received well online. Thousands of Chinese microbloggers have been compelled to point out in various ways that temperatures in Zhejiang province rarely dip below freezing. Xue Manzi, a Beijing-based entrepreneur and angel investor with more than 10 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like microblog, spoke for many when he tweeted:

“Currently, Zhejiang province’s response is ‘they froze to death.’ How could well over 10,000 pigs in one village freeze to death in January? And more than 8,000 freeze to death in February? Why did the pigs freeze to death only in Jiaxing? Only Jiaxing pigs are fond of catching colds? Pigs in other places don’t catch colds? . . . Is it so difficult to get the officials to apologize? Forever avoiding blame.”

Nonetheless, there isn’t much online anger at the incident, and certainly not the level of horror that would occur if 5,916 dead pigs were found flowing down, say, the Mississippi River. The jaded residents of Shanghai -- at least as represented by their microblogging compatriots -- seem to be taking the episode rather well, with most inclined to find a kind of self-effacing humor in the carnage.

Take the Sina Weibo account of Xinmin Weekly, a popular, Communist Party-owned Shanghai newsmagazine. On March 12, it tweeted the following joke, apparently designed to make light of the insatiable Chinese appetite for pork:

“‘There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that there are only dead pigs to eat.’

At times, the self-effacement becomes cutting social criticism. The farmers who dumped the pigs were Chinese, a point made by Tan Dun, a Chinese composer, when he tweeted via Sina Weibo on March 12:

“Who could imagine more than 1,200 head dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River, some rotting, some containing a pig virus. . . . Who on Earth is threatening our lives and survival? Ourselves!”

Still, gallows-style, “What next?” humor tends to dominate the millions of “dead pig” tweets that have appeared over the last two days. Many missives either implicitly or directly criticized the government’s regulatory efforts. One of the most popular of these is a satirical tweet from the perspective of a (mock) coroner in Jiaxing. It comes in many variations, making its ultimate provenance hard to determine.

This version was tweeted March 12 by a Shanghai stock market investor. It includes a reference to recent incidents where Chinese citizens were rebuffed in their efforts to buy milk powder in Hong Kong. (Chinese milk powder is widely thought to be contaminated.) Each of the listed causes of death is a common concern in Shanghai, and far more serious to the average resident than a bunch of dead, infected pigs floating on the river:

“The Jiaxing coroner’s investigation into the death of thousands of pigs found: 1) resentful of the antibiotics in their feed, the pigs collectively committed suicide by leaping into the Huangpu River; 2) unwilling to drink the contaminated water offered by their owners, they accidentally drowned while drinking Huangpu River water . . . 4) unable to consume powdered milk from Hong Kong, they went on a hunger strike and died; 5) they suffocated trying not to breathe in the smog . . . PS: Zhejiang Provincial Department of Agriculture: Huangpu River dead pigs mostly froze to death.”

Shanghai’s dead pigs won’t be the last food-safety scandal to disgust its jaded residents. But the incident may be remembered for longer than those that preceded it. A dead pig that you don’t eat, after all, is a much more enjoyable punch line than the contaminated pig you ate for dinner.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.