A modest proposal?

July 26, 2007 | 6 2 min read

They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week’s issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with “sulphur salt,” an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.

None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou’s book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:

[The soup was] placenta soup… The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government’s one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.

While this tidbit doesn’t seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.

Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China’s moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.

A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle… the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times… in Chinese. Who to believe?

The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can’t trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?

Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we’re still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they’re unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it’s hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.

So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou’s account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.

See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.


  1. Dear God, I hope that this is simply a reporter trying to stir debate instead of fact.

  2. You write: "The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before." Don't you mean to say "the myth" or "the rumor" of the blood libel?

  3. anon: I'm pretty sure that the term "blood libel" implies that it is false – i. e. libel. Calling it a myth would suggest that the libel is a myth, not the claim behind it. For more see the Wikipedia entry which begins "Blood libels are sensationalized allegations…"

  4. I'd take this with a very large grain of salt. A reporter in China
    was just busted for faking this story on cardboard in dumplings:
    but that link still makes it seem like a real story.


    Generally, these "OMG! I can't believe this is happening" news reports are untrue, especially when they take place so far away.

    I would imagine a fetus-eating story would have gotten a bit more press.

  5. And I was disgusted when Harper's published a transcript of an episode of a British cooking show about making placenta pate…

  6. There is no morality left in China. Money has become the new opiate for the masses, Corruption is everywhere and there is no respect for Human rights. Please dont forget that Chinese communist regime has killed 80 million Chinese in the last 60 years of rule;thats more than the 2 world wars together.
    The Chinese communist regime does not believe in anything higher than it self and will go to any length to keep power including murdering innocents who believe in Truth Compassion and Tolerance. Live organ harvesting
    from Falun Gong practitioners to supply lucrative profits to the army. Please read independent reports at http://investigation.go.saveinter.net/

    How can the Olympic President Jacque Rogue continue to dismiss the atrocities that are still occurring in China to many many poor Chinese people. This affects all of us. The communist regime has no scruples and their plan is take down democracy and rule with Communism.Please support a boycott to the 2008 Games. There will be no honour for any athlete or country who wins medals there on the blood soaked soil.
    Crimes against Humanity and Olympics cannot coexist

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