Mon, Jul 30, 2007 - Page 8 News List

China's house of cardboard dumplings

By P.D. Bailey

Just one week after the Chinese government accused foreign media outlets, especially from the US, of creating unreasonable fear about the safety of the country's food and drug exports, CNN's John Vause did a story called "Ordering food in Beijing makes me nervous." Vause began by saying that he used to enjoy eating out in China's capital city, but now uneasy questions pop into his mind that spoil the experience.

"When ordering at restaurants," he said, "I wonder: Is that drug-tainted fish and shrimp? Did that pork come from a pig that was force-fed wastewater? Any melamine added to those noodles?"

The Chinese food safety scandal has created a flood of media coverage, and not surprisingly, the word "trust" has popped up in more than a few stories and headlines. The BBC ran a story called "Do you trust Chinese goods?" (July 10). The Minneapolis Star Tribune published "Food from China: Can you trust it?" (July 19). And a Seattle Times editorial was very straightforward with a piece called "China must earn back consumer trust" (July 13).

The bureaucrats in Beijing are busy doing damage control, appropriately concerned that the media reports are creating a public frenzy.

The China Daily quoted Li Changjiang (李長江), head of China's food inspection authority, as saying: "One company's problem doesn't make it a country's problem."

But the "problem" I would like to bring up here is not just food safety -- it's a broader issue that many people are uncomfortable addressing: The Chinese have a serious problem with gaining trust ? not just from the Taiwanese or from the outside world at large, but from each other.

The controversial philosopher and author Francis Fukuyama argues in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity that the most important cultural trait influencing a country's prosperity is its level of trust. High levels of trust spark collaboration and shared norms, he says. Chinese society, he asserts, has a very low level of trust -- relative to Japanese, German and US societies -- and that this distrust essentially "taxes" the economy.

Zhang Weiying (張維迎) and Ke Rongzhu (柯榮住) of Guanghua School of Management and the Institute of Business Research at Peking University tackled this issue in their paper "Trust in China: A Cross-Regional Analysis." Considering the department in which this research was done, the concerns these academics had when conducting their research are obvious.

The paper addresses Fukuyama's claims early on, saying "While we do not agree with Fukuyama in his explanation of the cultural origin of "low trust" in the Chinese communities, we have to accept the fact that lack of trust is common and serious in today's China. It not only reduces the economic efficiency, but it's even threatening the existence of market and transaction [sic]. What's the underlying reason of low trust? How can trust be built (or rebuilt in our view) in China?"

Good question.

They suggest establishing strong private property rights, efficient transaction facilities and information systems and a "`normalization' of government behavior -- or a consistent government.

Traditional wisdom says that trust is something that can take years to create and a day to destroy. The Chinese government, lacking trust in its own people, is not helping to create an environment of trust. And its people and the world respond accordingly.

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