China's industrial mess, and what the West can do about it

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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 two weeks ago of the former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), 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), 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 cell phone batteries, and defective car tires.

Now, 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 with 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 SFDA, was sentenced to death for accepting roughly $300,000 in bribes from drug manufacturers. Both verdicts were doubtless calculated, as a famous Chinese proverb puts it, to “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 xiadao xiaoxi (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, re-package 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 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 United States Environmental Protection Administration has over 17,000.

China’s mad rush toward wealth and power has given it little chance to develop all the compensatory institutions that any truly developed, not to say enlightened, society needs to achieve equilibrium and social health.

But in today’s globalized world, where national boundaries have morphed into synapses for myriad kinds of uncontrollable interactions, each country’s problems have become everyone’s problem. So, before we in the West becomes 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 us. 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 Schellis the Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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