by Orville Schell
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
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
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
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
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.