Xi Jinping Explains “Without Switching Shoulders” Meme in Xinhua Report

Explaining a meme often takes the wind out of a joke’s sails. Not so in this case. A recent Xi Jinping quote published by Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, has breathed new life into a long-running meme mocking the General Secretary’s braggadocio.

A 2017 CCTV report on Xi Jinping’s time as a sent-down youth featured an old clip of Xi boasting: “I’d carry 200 jin of wheat on a ten-li mountain road without even switching shoulders.” The claim beggared belief. Two hundred jin is equivalent to approximately 220 pounds, and 10 li to approximately three miles. Netizens immediately mocked the claim: “OK, you’re strong,” wrote one person, “I won’t argue. But not changing shoulders? That’s just stupid.” A group of Taiwanese strongmen tried—and failed—to replicate the feat. 

The claim soon became shorthand for mockery of Xi’s burgeoning personality cult and thus an object of censorship. The phrase “200 jin” has triggered algorithmic censorship on WeChat, the song “Fragile” was censored after mocking the claim (amidst other jabs at Xi Jinping and the Party), and in 2019 a man was summoned to “drink tea” after saying he hoped Trump would “beat ‘200 jin’s’ brain out soon.” The phrase has also spawned a host of sensitive nicknames, including: “Wheat-Carrying Man,” “Wheat-Bearing Donkey,” “Without Switching Shoulders,” and the Chinese character shì, which resembles a single person carrying a heavy load across their shoulders (the two radicals bái at left and right mean “one hundred.”)

The question of why Xi (ostensibly) never switched shoulders while carrying wheat remained unanswered—until now, that is. In a recent Xinhua report on Xi Jinping’s “inspection trip” to Hunan, the state-run outlet quoted Xi explaining that it was all in the interest of “food security,” a top current political priority

On the morning of 21st, while listening to reports from the Hunan Party Committee and government, the General Secretary spoke on the connection between food security and food loss and waste: “Back when I was on the village production team, we couldn’t switch shoulders while carrying wheat. One slip-up while switching shoulders and the grain would spill and thus be wasted. Nowadays, most food loss happens during mechanical harvesting. We must improve our machinery and focus on intensive agriculture.” 

He directed that Hunan’s Party and government should bear equal responsibility for achieving comprehensive food security, focusing on the crucial inputs of seeds and arable land, firmly defending cultivated land, and resolutely banning the conversion of arable land to non-agricultural use and the the conversion of farmland to any uses other than the production of food. [Chinese]

Xi Jinping is greatly concerned with food security. A new study by CSIS finds that Xi Jinping has personally engaged on food security topics 67 times, mostly through inspection tours like the recent trip to Hunan but also through meetings, letters, and instructions. Xi personally “pointed the way forward” on “food security” in September 2023. A July 2023 article from The Economist explains why the Party is obsessed with “food security” as a top political priority

Officials in Beijing are obsessed with food security. Many Chinese are old enough to remember the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s policies in the late 1950s. That catastrophe killed tens of millions of people. Today the legitimacy of the Communist Party rests in part on its ability to provide affordable food to the people, who are eating an increasingly rich diet. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has therefore pushed for more self-sufficiency in the food supply.

That was always going to be a challenge. China accounts for about 20% of the world’s population, but it has less than 10% of its arable land. In recent decades, as the country developed and urbanized, its farmland shrank. Imports still play an important role in the food supply. But they risk being affected by testy relations with countries such as America and Australia, or by conflicts like the war in Ukraine.

Weather-related shocks will make life even harder for Mr Xi and the farmers on which he depends. Take the staple grains that supply about half of the average Chinese person’s calories. More droughts could reduce yields of maize, wheat and rice by 8% by 2030, according to research funded by the agriculture ministry. Heavy rainfall could have a similar effect on some crops. Vegetables and fruits are just as vulnerable to extreme weather—and harder to store for long periods, making it difficult for the government to stockpile reserves. One big effect of a severe drought last year in southern China was a spike in the price of cucumbers and lettuce. [Source]

On Weibo, “without switching shoulders” remains a censored term. But on X (formerly Twitter), Chinese netizens joked about Xinhua’s publication of Xi’s explanation for the claim: “Looks like Lil’ Ping just can’t get over the ‘switching shoulders’ joke.”


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