When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues a warning to farmers, most of them get it the same day or a day later.
In China, the same piece of information vital to food safety may take months or years to reach farmers in the countryside – if it ever does make it.
The problem for China is mainly two fold: first, China has 200 million farming households and 500,000 food-producing companies. So the problems in policing such a “system” are immense by western standards.
The second reason clearly points to a failure of the communist party system inside China.
Local party functionaries are largely ineffective in managing the simplest new piece of information from Beijing.
When Beijing senses that things are not all well in the countryside; a threat to local bureaucrats is likely just around the corner.
Earlier this year, China ordered local authorities to address the root causes of rising public discontent, state media reported, in an apparent sign of growing concern over social stability.
Local officials were told they will be denied promotions unless they minimize social unrest in their areas, Xinhua news agency quoted a top Community Party official as saying.
“Officials who perform poorly in maintaining social stability in rural areas will not be qualified for promotion,” it quoted Ouyang Song, a senior party official in charge of personnel matters, as saying.
Beijing blamed inept local communist party officials for illicit CD factories, air and water pollution, and rioting over the “one child” policy near Hong Kong.
One local party official told me, “We are the whipping boys” for Beijing. “Beijing will not take responsibility in front of the west, but they will shift the blame on to us, poor education and other policy problems.”
But many westerners say the number and quality of local officials is just not adequate. And local officials are expected to monitor a vast panoply of companies and activities.
Consider the pharmaceutical industry in China.
“There’s no quick fix,” says Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization’s top representative in China. “China has perhaps been cutting some corners because the focus has been on growth. But they have 5,000 companies that produce medicine. That’s far too many.”
Some experts inside China say that due to illegal drug production the actual number of companies involved in the pharmaceutical “industry” may be as many as 6,700.
“The government has a limited ability to enforce things,” said Bekedam. “They need to start with simple things: reduce the number of people you monitor.”
China’s new Food and Drug Administration director said local businessmen and officials did not understand what Beijing expects – or are worn out by their requirements.”We must face the fact that there are still some problems which cannot be ignored,” Shao Mingli was quoted as saying at a seminar in a transcript posted on the agency’s Web site.
“Some areas are not fully aware of the importance, hardship and complexity of this work. They fear the difficulties and suffer battle fatigue.”And many believe, despite pressure from Beijing, there is little incentive for local bureaucrats to follow Beijing’s orders or lead.
The difficulty is compounded by what some academics have termed “local protectionism,” the close relationship between government and business in many cities. Xue Lan, associate director of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, said local officials do not always think it is in their best interests to recognize corruption.
“Sometimes local regulatory agencies do not necessarily make the best effort to control issues because it may harm the local economy. So they let it go,” Xue said.
China experts also point out that for decades, the Communist Party has held primacy over the rule of law in China. It is almost impossible to bring legal action against party leaders and other high-ranking individuals. In addition, the country’s legal system is based on socialist principles that value the needs of the society more than those of the individual.
A China expert told us: “If it is good for the economy and people are making money, nobody will really police how we get there.”
Postscript: Because China’s drug, food and product safety woes are linked to the communist party, we believe there are many similar concers for Vietnam.
Tricky Vietnamese Truth About Catfish
What Does Beijing’s Central Government Consider a “Threat”?
People Living Under Communism: Very Limited Rights (If Any)
China Plans Happy Olympics But A Few “Small” Problems Remain
China Planning a Surreal Facade for Summer Olympic Games: Beijing 2008
In this run up to the Beijing Summer Olympics, which begin a year from now, you see many “happy face” “news” reports from westerners in China. As I am writing this, Meredith Viera of the NBC TODAY show is sampling food in China during a report from China. Of course, NBC has a huge contract to televise the 2008 Summer games and is in no position to offer any criticism of China.
So there is a different view of China, an alternative to NBCs, that needs to be known and understood.
By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
Updated August 8, 2007