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Time travel is food for thought in China

By Mike Loftus on Oct 16, 12 09:56 PM in

Current cinema box office smash hit 'Looper' has made a mark in a number of ways. Casting a sideways light on one of China's greatest social challenges probably wasn't one its makers anticipated.

But let's begin with some more straightforward matters. The film is a co production between Hollywood and the Chinese production company DMG entertainment - another example of Chinese economic muscle beginning to emerge in novel places. The co- production deal means that the film will get full distribution in China and it is expected to be the first film to make more money in China than in the US.

The co-production deal meant that some location filming was actually done in China.

Part of the story is set in a mid western farmstead set among fields of sugar cane. The twist is a these sequences have the arresting skyline of Shanghai's Pudong district ( with some modest CGI enhancement) looming distantly over a clapperboard farmhouse which itself calls to mind the celebrated and emblematic painting American Gothic.Given the tangled intricacies of current Sino - US relations,that juxtaposition of icons is intriguing to say the least.

The central thrust of the plot concerns time travel- which present a further twist as the Chinese authorities were frowning rather heavily last year at a rash of time travel themed dramas that were appearing on national TV there. With regard to Looper even the highest level summary of the action might leave the head spinning a little.Suffice to say the principal action takes place in 2043 with occasional interventions from 2072 - by which latter point time travel has been invented, declared illegal and then appropriated for nefarious purposes by the criminal classes. There's much more to it than this - best to say is that if you like that sort of thing, it's the sort of thing you'll like - and as the critics and box office takings underline, a lot of folk do.

The director is clearly comfortable that Shanghai's architecture of today is a convenient piece of shorthand allowing him to convincingly place his story some forty years in the future. It's a notion that sits happily with that part of the country's own current narrative which has China itself racing into the future at a pace which is only matched by their own high speed train fleet.

A quite separate strand of the Chinese narrative - which the authorities are also happy to deploy as required -is that China is still a developing country. The new leadership will face at least as many strains, pressures and even threats from this fact as they will from China's status as an emerging superpower.

Close to the head of any list of these threats is the bald but chilling fact that the Chinese people cannot always be confident that the very food they place in mouths will not harm them.

The implications of this -and the interest that the Beijing authorities are taking in the British approach to the matter of food safety were evident when a group of Chinese experts met the leader of the Birmingham food safety team here recently. The scale of the problem and China's determination to respond became clear.

The Chinese government attempted to consolidate food safety regulation with the creation of the State Food and Drug Administration of China in 2003; officials have also been under increasing pressure to solve food safety problems. Vice Premier Li Keqiang has said, "Food is essential, and safety should be a top priority. Food safety is closely related to people's lives and health and economic development and social harmony," ( Li Keqiang is expected to rank second in the new Chinese government hierarchy.)

The State Food and Drug Administration published a survey in early 2007 where 65% of the respondents expressed concern about food safety. As urban consumers' incomes increase, the demand for quality food goods, safer production, and processed foods also increases, and urban residents and supermarkets attract more national and media attention to food problems. China's food regulations are complex, its monitoring system can be unresponsive, and the government departments that oversee and enforce policies have overlapping and often ambiguous duties.

Caught between fast rising expectations of its people - in this and many other area - and its current capacity to respond, China is looking for a version of time travel to bring a very speedy solution. Where practice and experience in the West is ahead, China is eager for access to solutions on a 'plug and play' basis. This applies just as much to social issues and public policy such as food safety as is does to industrial and economic areas.

Another area where the opportunity that China presents is perhaps less than obvious but very real.

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