Hu’s visit faces delay until May

by Kaho Shimizu

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Tokyo may have to wait until May instead of mid-April because of the increasingly bitter dispute over pesticide-tainted meat-and-vegetable ‘gyoza” dumplings from China, government sources said Wednesday.

Government officials are increasingly concerned that a disagreement between Japanese and Chinese police about how the toxic pesticide methamidophos got into the gyoza could damage bilateral ties.

Although neither government has officially announced a date for Hu’s visit — except to say “in the cherry blossom season” — the Japanese media have been reporting that both were shooting for around April 15.

Since Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is trying to visit Russia and Europe between late April and early May, and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak is expected to visit Tokyo around April 20, Hu will likely have to wait until after the Golden Week holidays, which end May 6.

After dropping to their worst state in decades under Japan’s previous two prime ministers, Sino-Japanese relations have recovered under Fukuda in the past months.

Officials on both sides are trying to prevent public sentiment about food safety from overheating and spoiling the landmark visit, which would be the first by a Chinese president in a decade.

“We should not turn the gyoza poisoning incident into a political problem. The incident is about (food safety and) consumer confidence,” Foreign Ministry Deputy Press Secretary Tomohiko Taniguchi said Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said on Feb. 29 that the gyoza dispute should not affect Hu’s visit.

“I don’t think any development (from the investigations) will determine the dates of (Hu’s) visit,” Komura said.

Despite efforts at the diplomatic level, Japanese and Chinese investigators are blaming each other for lacking cooperation.

Chinese police said last week there was little chance the gyoza were contaminated in China, countering an assertion made by Japanese police on Feb. 22 that the tainting likely took place in China.

Both sides are trying to determine exactly when and where the methamidophos was put into the gyoza products.

China has said that Tianyang Food, which made the dumplings, has strict and thorough quality control measures that make it almost impossible to introduce toxic substances. The firm is based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.

“The poisoning incident was a case of sabotage, and not a food safety problem stemming from pesticide residue,” Yu Xinmin, deputy director of the criminal investigation bureau with the Ministry of Public Security, said on Feb. 28.

Japanese investigators, however, noted that methamidophos is banned in Japan and the pesticide is unable to penetrate sealed packages. They have also said the quality of the pesticide is too low to have been made in Japan.

In addressing the opening of the National People’s Congress in China, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Wednesday that the government will strengthen standards for food and medicine safety on about 7,700 items.

As host of the Beijing Olympics in August, China has been trying to improve the tarnished image of Chinese-made products and regain consumer trust in world markets.

But a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said that while Beijing is well aware of the importance of food safety in enhancing its international standing, the discord between Japanese and Chinese investigators has revealed a perception gap on the issue.

“I told Chinese officials that the issue is about food safety and that it is of particularly high public interest in Japan,” the senior official said on condition of anonymity last week.

“China does place importance on food safety, but (Chinese officials) may be wondering why the incident has been grabbing front-page headlines and why Japan has been playing up the issue so much,” he said.

Beijing has indicated the gyoza poisoning was caused by people who are deliberately trying to harm Japan-China relations.