Fri, Jul 13, 2007 - Page 8 News List

China's long industrial nightmare

By Orville Schell

The Western media have a habit of going on feeding frenzies. Ironically, when it comes to China, the latest frenzy concerns food itself.

The execution this week of the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration, (SFDA) Zheng Xiaoyu (鄭筱萸), who accepted almost US$1 million in bribes, shows that the frenzy has now seeped into China as well.

First came a spate of stories about pet food laced with melamine (a coal derivative), cough medicine and toothpaste adulterated with diethylene glycol (a sweet-tasting industrial chemical used in anti-freeze and brake fluid), toy trains decorated with lead-based paints, bacteria-infected antibiotics, exploding cellphone batteries and defective car tires.

Attention has now turned to food. The world press is filled with stories about honey laced with industrial sweeteners, canned goods contaminated by bacteria and excessive amounts of additives, rice wine braced with industrial alcohol and farm-raised fish, eel and shrimp fed large doses of antibiotics and then washed down with formaldehyde to lower bacterial counts.

In response, the Chinese government acted almost instantly. The General Administration of Quality and Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine conducted a survey and reported that nearly one-fifth of all products made in China for domestic use did not measure up to safety and quality standards.

At the same time, regulators increased inspections, closed down some 180 food manufacturers and now post the names of violators on their Web site.

Moreover, not only was Zheng executed, but Cao Wenzhuang (曹文莊), who was in charge of drug registration at the SFDA, was sentenced to death for accepting roughly US$300,000 in bribes from drug manufacturers. Both verdicts were doubtless calculated. As a famous Chinese proverb puts it, "kill some chickens in order to scare the monkeys."

But why does this surprise us? After all, "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" has been a chaotic free-for-all for some time. Roughly 75 percent of China's food is now produced by small, private and unlicensed operations that are difficult to regulate.

With little knowledge of China's tectonic changes, foreigners have been investing, buying, trading and extravagantly praising its amazing, but hell-bent, "economic boom." Fear of "China bashing" has made it difficult for so-called "friends of China" to discuss its darker side openly.

The Chinese people themselves, however, have been far from unaware that the purity of their food, medicine, water and air is in doubt. The back-alley news has long been replete with rumors of things going awry. One small-time operation ground up sheet-rock and put it in gel caps to sell as medicine.

A peasant village raided a hospital dumpster to reclaim discarded surgical equipment, wash it in a nearby canal, repackage it in sealed plastic saying "sterilized," and sell it back to the hospital at cut-rate prices.

It has not helped, of course, that the Chinese Communist Party loathes a free press and a robust civil society -- both of which are essential information feedback loops in ensuring any country's well-being.

Nor has it helped that China's regulatory agencies lag far behind the growth of its economy.

For example, the Beijing office of China's State Environmental Protection Administration has less than 300 employees, whereas the US Environmental Protection Agency has more than 17,000.

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