Rat meat dressed up as lamb, adulterated milk and baby formula, substandard school textbooks — the Chinese have plenty to be concerned about right now apart from the perennial problems of pollution and growing concern about falling economic growth.
The country’s new leader, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), has been talking of pursuing a “China dream,” but cruder everyday realities keep intruding, posing what may be the central challenge for his administration.
While China’s future is usually assessed in economic or political terms, it is social issues that most concern most people. These are proving particularly tricky to deal with, nowhere more so that in the crucial matter of food safety.
On their own, each of the recent scandals might be dismissed as the kind of accidents that occur in any country.
However, taken together, the food problems, environmental threats and negligence pose a broad challenge to the credibility of a regime that claims to have its people’s interests at heart, but has done such a poor job of protecting their welfare.
The lack of legal recourse and accountability spur people to take to the streets — it is estimated there are more than 150,000 protests each year.
Official media report on such matters far more frankly than in the past. Social media spread word of the latest scandal.
The difficulty for the leadership is that many of these problems stem from the system that has seen China grow into the world’s second largest economy with its weak regulation, corruption and entrenched business interests protected by officials.
The past two weeks alone has brought news of the arrest of a gang that added gelatine to flesh from rats, foxes and minks and sold it as lamb without any testing for quality or safety.
In Shandong Province, farmers were found to have used a highly toxic pesticide on ginger plants, while in central China, 3 million school dictionaries were discovered to be rip-offs full of errors.
There have been recurrent cases of milk being treated with harmful chemicals to raise its protein count, not to mention buns being recycled after passing their sell-by date, plus the thousands of diseased pig carcasses that floated down the river through Shanghai in March.
This is all on top of an environmental crisis — not only the heavy smog in Beijing and other cities, but also poisoned rivers and heavy metal deposits from smelters together with fears of toxic discharges from petrochemical plants.
The cumulative effect of all this is to undermine trust in a regime that, despite the lack of democracy, requires popular support as a rapidly evolving society gives people much greater individual liberty than in the days of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and they show a growing readiness to make their complaints heard.
While aware of the discontent, the government is running well behind the curve.
Regulation remains weak and safety guidelines issued by the supreme people’s court this month are minimal. The number of cases brought for selling unsafe food between 2010 and last year — 1,533 — looks small given the scale of the problem.
Reducing the smog in the capital, cleaning up China’s rivers or taking on the local authorities that should be enforcing environmental protection are long-term jobs.
However, the food safety issue has struck an immediate chord, especially with the middle class, whose co-operation Xi and his colleagues need.
The annual survey of popular attitudes carried out by the Pew Institute last year showed 41 percent of those questioned were concerned about food safety compared with only 12 percent in 2008. That was before the current scandals.
Addressing these kinds of social, human problems will be key for the new leadership, alongside its more lofty goals of rejuvenating and strengthening the nation — and just as tricky.
Jonathan Fenby is a British writer, journalist and analyst. He edited the Observer newspaper from 1993 to 1995 and the South China Morning Post from 1995 to 1999.