Apr 8, 2024 - Economy

Janet Yellen goes viral on Chinese social media

image of Janet Yellen drinking a beer

In her last night in Beijing, Yellen visited Jing-A brewery and tried an IPA made with American hops. Photo: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

BEIJING—First mushrooms, now chopsticks: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has trekked to China twice in her role as top manager of one of the globe's most important economic relationships.

  • And both times, Yellen has become something unique for an official in the post: a social media star.

Why it matters: Chinese social media is, once again, abuzz with Yellen's latest visit.

  • At first that may seem trivial, but Yellen's viral moments point to a key feature of the Biden era U.S.-China relationship — economic relations are rocky, but Yellen is well-liked by counterparts and popular among part of China's general public.

A key theme that drives massive interest across Chinese social media platforms: where Yellen eats, often praised for their cultural authenticity.

  • Yellen was seen dining out on her first night in Guangzhou, the first of two stops across four days of meetings in China. Members of the Treasury delegation visited "Tao Tao Ju," a century-old Cantonese restaurant.
  • Chinese state media-affiliated account posted a clip of officials dining online, praising her proficiency with chopsticks.
  • Some also noted that Yellen asked the restaurant to remove barriers separating her group from other diners — allowing her to be seen by the public.

The dining clip was a top post on Weibo — and her strong social media presence (including posts that admired that Yellen carried her own bags when she arrived in Beijing) came up at meetings on the trip.

  • A dean at Beijing's Peking University greeted Yellen by noting that China has been watching news around her arrival and her dining — after which Yellen jumped in and said, "My chopstick skills!"
  • And Chinese Premier Li Qiang — the highest ranking official Yellen met with on this trip — said through a translator that the long-time academic's visit has "indeed drawn a lot of attention in society."

The intrigue: Despite Yellen's popularity, press was asked to avoid snapping close-up shots of the university students participating in a roundtable with Yellen for fear of being targeted by anti-U.S. social media in China.

Flashback: After her first trip to China as Treasury Secretary, Yellen said she tried mushrooms that she later learned could be psychedelic, if not cooked properly.

  • The restaurant that served them, Yi Zuo Yi Wang, saw a surge of interest—and later branded a menu featuring all the dishes tried by Yellen (including those mushrooms).
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