The Chinese Zoo Restaurant That Served Zoo Animals

In China, just as in the United States, people see zoos as breeding grounds for animals, not corruption. So it was with great mirth that Beijing papers announced the investigation of Xiao Shaoxiang, a former deputy director of the Beijing Zoo, suspected of embezzling $2.26 million.

The story, which broke on July 29, allowed for a wide variety of animal puns -- especially because the most quoted line from Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign is an exhortation to go after both flies (low-ranking officials) and tigers (their bosses). "Animals are in the cage, whereas the deputy director's power is uncaged," wrote one blogger in a headline that, with some massaging, could conceivably appear on an American cable news show. Meanwhile, on the Chinese Internet, some people joked about the ridiculousness of the crime: "I think Disney could use this to make a movie," the Beijing News quoted one Internet user as saying. "The zoo head is embezzling food from the animals, and a tiger, a small bear, and a monkey plan to escape." (Xiao is accused of pocketing kickbacks related to zoo construction, not stealing food from the animals.)

Chinese zoos have a spotty history -- of animal mistreatment, of poor funding, and, in one infamous case in the central Chinese city of Louhe, of claiming a hairy dog was an African lion. But arguably the most compelling Chinese zoo scandal occurred in the Beijing Zoo in May 2010, when Chinese media discovered that Bin Feng Tang, a restaurant affiliated with the zoo, was serving exotic animal dishes -- including hippopotamus toes and alligator fried in hot sauce -- from a secret menu.

The journalist who broke that story, Lan Yiyun of Legal Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, didn't appear surprised about the zoo restaurant. In fact, Lan's story read as much like a restaurant review as an exposé. Lan listed the prices, which ranged from around $15 for antelope soup to roughly $88 for kangaroo eggs and roughly $118 for crocodile. Lan also recommended the best way to enjoy the restaurant: Book two days in advance so the kitchen has enough time to prepare your order and visit with a group of six to 14 people -- small enough so that everyone can fit at one table, but large enough so people can select a wide variety of food.

The news gave the restaurant a rush of business, according to a Liaoning TV station report. In an interview with Lan, the restaurant manager said that everything he was doing was legal, that he wasn't serving protected animals, and that the food served came from certified animal farms.  

Alas for the restaurant's owners, the story caused a public outcry from Chinese whose views on zoos and animals hew closer to the international norm. "It is utterly inappropriate for a zoo to sell such items," Ge Rui of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an organization dedicated to saving animals, told the Guardian. "One of the zoo's missions is to foster love of animals and a desire to protect them. But by selling the meat of caged beasts, this zoo stimulates consumption and increases pressure on the animals in the wild. It is socially irresponsible."

Shortly after the media storm, the restaurant removed the exotic animals from the menu. A few years ago, I called and asked about the secret menu. "Oh, we don't have that anymore," the woman said sadly. "I'm sorry." She still recommended I visit the restaurant, though. If memory serves, she also offered to "find me some special turtle," an offer I politely declined.

The zoo itself also seemed to encourage the restaurant's broader menu offerings. "In the past, notices on each of the zoo's animal cages included information about which parts were the tastiest and most useful according to traditional Chinese medicine," according to a May 2010 article in the Guardian. "Those details have now been omitted."

Instances like these, however, are a good reminder that Chinese journalists -- like their American counterparts -- can have a finely developed sense of irony: The Legal Daily journalist reported that the restaurant's patrons dubbed it "the most awesome restaurant in Beijing." The slang word they used for awesome is niu, which literally means cow. 



The United States Has Outspent the Marshall Plan to Rebuild Afghanistan

In June of 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall delivered a wholly unexpected commencement speech to the newly minted graduates of Harvard University. The United States, Marshall announced, would launch a massive reconstruction effort to rebuild Europe in the devastating aftermath of World War II. The subsequent effort, the Marshall Plan, put Europe back on the path to prosperity and has been hailed as a monumental, if wildly expensive, achievement of U.S. foreign policy. All told, the United States funneled an inflation-adjusted $103.4 billion to the plan's recipients over the course of four years.

But the Marshall Plan has now been knocked off its pedestal as America's most expensive nation-building project. Afghanistan now reigns supreme, having gobbled up $104 billion in American aid. And, unlike in Europe, that money hasn't bought the kind of world-class infrastructure that became the cornerstones of numerous flourishing economies. Instead, the funds have mainly bought empty buildings, malfunctioning power plants, and a corrupt government that will be wholly dependent on Western -- read: American -- aid well into the future.

On Wednesday, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, released his quarterly report to Congress. The document reads like an early epitaph for the American nation-building effort in Afghanistan. With $104 billion already spent, another $5.8 billion has been requested for 2015. Of the money appropriated, $15.95 billion remains to be spent.


A significant portion of that money has been directed toward projects that are comically ill conceived or badly carried out. The United States has spent $7.6 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, but opium cultivation there -- a key Taliban funding source -- has risen for the past three years, and helped push global quantities of the crop to a record level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $34.4 million toward a soybean project in the face of scientific evidence indicating that the crop was "inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan, where the program was implemented." The United States Agency for International Development has pledged $75 million toward the ill-fated Kajaki Dam project, but the inspector general questions whether that project is at all economically viable. The United States has spent $626 million to provide weapons and equipment to Afghan forces. That aid includes 465,000 small arms, but, according to the IG, for 43 percent of those arms, information was missing in a database used to track their receipt in Afghanistan.

Indeed, equipment expenditures have been a key outlay during the American presence in Afghanistan:

So it's perhaps no surprise that the report notes that the Afghan government is far from financial independence. Last year, the Afghan government saw revenues of about $2 billion. Its budget was far larger: $5.4 billion. Donors mostly made up that difference. In January, Afghanistan approved a $7.6 billion budget, with donors chipping in about $4.8 billion.

Of the $104 billion the United States has poured into Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, some $62 billion has gone toward creating the Afghan army. (It should be noted that when comparing the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan with the Marshall Plan that in the aftermath of World War II, the United States did not have to stand up any European armies.) To save money, the size of that force is being reduced from 352,000 to 228,500 men. Even at that reduced size, the Afghan government takes in far less money than will be required to fund the army: an estimated $4.1 billion annually.

Hobbled by a weak state, persistent poverty, and a mostly rural population, Afghanistan has historically struggled to collect taxes, which Sopko identifies as one of the key challenges for Kabul in the years ahead. But so far, the government is struggling to make progress. According to the IG's report, the Afghan government missed by 20 percent its revenue targets during the first four months of the current fiscal year. At the same time, expenses are expected to rise, creating a situation in which Afghanistan will remain highly reliant on the generosity of donor nations.

And while the money will keep pouring into Afghanistan, the U.S. government's ability to oversee how it is being spent is about to decline, according to Sopko. Less than 20 percent of Afghanistan is expected to be accessible to U.S. oversight personnel by December, a 50 percent decrease since 2009.

Sopko's report comes at a crucial turning point for the country. The runoff election between presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah is undergoing an audit of all 8 million ballots. A new Afghan president cannot be declared fast enough for Washington, which is waiting on a winner to sign a bilateral security agreement. Without the agreement, the United States has said it will have to withdraw all troops by the end of the year. If the next Afghan president does sign it, President Barack Obama has said 9,800 American troops will remain, drawing down to roughly 4,900 by the end of 2015.

In his letter accompanying the report, Sopko describes his most recent trip to Afghanistan in June. "The U.S. effort to bring its men, women, and materiel home from Afghanistan already is proceeding at a tremendous pace," Sopko notes, and as the United States withdraws, "the Afghan National Security Forces will be responsible for securing Afghanistan."

But Sopko's oversight efforts cast doubts on whether they will be able to do so effectively. Earlier this week, his office released a report explaining that those forces may have lost track of as many as 43 percent of the nearly half a million small arms provided by the United States. A day later, his office released a report casting doubt on whether the ANSF's fleet of armored personnel carriers will be viable in the long term.

Amid these questions over equipment and procurement, Afghan forces have been sustaining heavy casualties. Between March 2012 and May 2014, the Afghan National Army saw 2,330 of its soldiers killed in action. The United States, the primary financial benefactor of those forces, has paid a heavy price here too. In the 11 years since the war began, the United States has lost 2,338 troops and seen more than 19,000 wounded.