Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 2007
The Western media have a habit of going on feeding frenzies.
Ironically, when it comes to China, the latest feeding frenzy concerns food itself. The execution this week of the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration, Zhen Xiaoyu, who accepted almost $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), and cough medicine and toothpaste adulterated with diethylene glycol (a sweet-tasting industrial chemical used in anti-freeze and brake fluid).
Other reports involved toy trains decorated with lead-based paints, bacteria-infected antibiotics, exploding cell phone batteries, and defective car tires.
Now, attention has 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, China's 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 Zhen Xiaoyu executed, but Cao Wenzhuang, who was in charge of drug registration at the State Food and Drug Administration, was also sentenced to death for accepting about $300,000 in bribes from drug manufacturers.
But why does this surprise us? After all, "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" has been a chaotic free-for-all for some time. About 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." But the Chinese themselves have long known that the purity of their food, medicine, water and air is in doubt.
Indeed, 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. Peasant villagers raided a hospital dumpster to reclaim discarded surgical equipment, washed it in a nearby canal, re-packaged it in sealed plastic saying "sterilized," and sold it back to the hospital at cut-rate prices.
It has not helped, of course, that the Communist Party loathes a free press and a robust civil society, both of which are essential providers of feedback in ensuring any country's well-being.
Nor has it helped that China's mad rush toward wealth and power has given it little chance to develop all the compensatory institutions that any truly developed society needs to achieve equilibrium and social health.
But, before we in the West become too censorious of China's quality control problems, we should remember our complicity in making China the world's industrial park and global dumping ground for many toxic industries.
While we may lament the loss of manufacturing jobs through "outsourcing," we certainly do not lament exporting massive amounts of pollution to China.
China may come to rue the wanton eagerness with which it has embraced industrialization.
Already, the Chinese are beginning to awaken from the infatuation with development that besieged them as they began to emerge from the commodity-starved Cultural Revolution. In a world of scarcity, more always seemed better.
But now, just as the West began to understand decades ago that the natural environment has limits, China is showing the first signs of entering a post-industrial phase.
So, rather than simply shutting our doors to Chinese products, we might contemplate helping China by opening the doors of our regulatory agencies to Chinese regulators.
To do so would actually help ourselves. For, even with "strategic competitors" like China, we now live in a global commons in which we share air, water, manufactured goods and even food.
Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.