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The People’s Heaven?


This government inspector did not have the manner of a man who was worked to death; he was apparently not haunted by a fear that the hog might get by him before he had finished his testing. If you were a sociable person, he was quite willing to enter into conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork; and while he was talking with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were of passing him untouched. – Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.

That horror scenes from the Chicago meatpacking district in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a century old, might just as well depict the underbelly of China’s livestock trade today. And that duplicitous inspector? Sounds a bit like Zheng Xiaoyu, the inaugural commissar of China’s food and drug watchdog agency, who bit the bullet a couple weeks ago for taking bribes to let untested drugs off the hook. At least one of those medicines proved deadly.

American consumers should not be shocked to have to digest The Jungle all over again. For the West, yes, this is the epoch of go-go globalization. Yet China is in many ways still stuck in its gilded age. Its markets are bulging, yes. But petty entrepreneurs cheat while big businessmen and bureaucrats collude, covering up or playing down the dangers.

It’s more exasperating when you consider the change in fortunes behind this new reality. A decade ago some of us in the West were still worried about how we were going to feed China. Now we’re panicked about how China is feeding us. This turnabout is at the crux of China’s problem regulating food exports. And it is beginning to provide a window – and a lever – for influencing how China is regulated and governed.

From the (exploited) workers’ paradise Western nations reap both the profits and the plenty of exported goods that otherwise might not be quite so affordable. But at the same time we’re stuck with the pollution – of the food we eat and the air we breathe – from this cheap and under-checked flow. A bug from one Chinese producer can contaminate the whole global village. The world’s market is a jungle.

The trade and P.R. strategies the government has deployed in response to the recent global scare, with the aid of official media organs, have evolved to cover all the bases – internationalist, nationalist, and socialist. The message to the world and its media, in a nutshell, is this: ‘Hey, we’re working on it. So should you. Now back off.’
Less audibly, but more credibly, Chinese officials and academics offer the same explanation for the country’s defective exports as they offer for the country’s carbon footprint. It’s the “world’s factory floor” defense and it’s a cynical appeal to understand China’s “developing world’ status. It goes something like this: ‘You want more and more cheap goods faster and faster? Companies here produce them for you. Now you say you found a few bad apples in the batch? Some mislabeled chemicals? Coupla toy eyes that spray poison? With such massive change, such enormous demands, what did you expect?!!’

But food is still food and money is still money, and one is exchanged for the other. So alas, the U.S. possesses more leverage over how China makes its products than we do over how it burns its energy. Not since the SARS crisis have the global ramifications of a scare opened up such an opportunity, both abroad and within China, to influence the way the country is regulated and governed.

But it remains to be seen if our importers, for one, are willing to exert that leverage. The U.S. pushed and pushed to get China into the World Trade Organization and eliminate trade barriers. So why impose technical barriers now? The Democrat-controlled Congress stands poised to renew its legislative push for comprehensive Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL. But to many of the big lobbies, the New York Times suggests, , all’s pretty much cool as is. There’s no need for big change.

Pressure has, however, come from the international media. It took probes in papers like The Times and the unflinching coverage of the news wires to put China’s food and drug-making malfeasance on trial before the world. Now the government is cracking down. For weeks, Beijing accused its trade partners of protectionism for blocking the sale of toothpaste imports containing the toxic thickening agent diethylene glycol. Then last week, Beijing banned its own toothpaste makers from using it – all the while standing by its original position that the syrup was safe in small doses. In a ballsy commentary on the Washington Post site Post Global, Beijing-based journalist Wang Feng concludes:

I admit it may be an exaggeration to say that only a major international loss of face will make Beijing clean up its act. But as both a journalist and a consumer in a country where the public almost never learns the full story behind any scandal, I welcome the pressure and the subsequent change that such attention can bring.

So where are the muckraking Upton Sinclair-types of China? As noted elsewhere in recent weeks, the advent of the Internet and a tabloid press have produced quite a few. But the censors and other cadres have learned the art of damage control. They make sure that their reports do not pack the same punch as, say, the New York Times, the newspaper read by China’s most important customers: Western politicians and businessmen. Oftentimes, still, their reports do not emerge at all. Writing in the Asia Wall Street Journal, Kristin Jones of the Committee to Protect Journalists cites an absurd yet fairly representative example:

When Chinese reporter Zhou Kai discovered in April that patients in the city of Laiyang in Shandong province were receiving intravenous injections of counterfeit medicine, he managed to get inside a hospital to talk to the family and doctors of a comatose patient. Then he interviewed the deputy director of an apparently indifferent local Food and Drug Administration. But before his article could be published, the local Communist Party’s propaganda department got word of Mr. Zhou’s investigation.

In a move perfectly attuned to the current mix of Party power and capitalist sensibilities in China, officials from Laiyang offered an advertising package to Mr. Zhou’s employer at the major national newspaper China Youth Daily. The newspaper’s officially appointed management blocked the story from publication.

Dulled by censorship and dehumanized by all the other bad news out there, what seem matters of life and death to us can come off as stories of a developing country’s aches and pains within China. Mainland journalists who have been tracking product safety issues for years tend to frame the situation in stoically historic terms that often dovetail into the “world’s factory floor” defense.

“In the past, the country didn’t even have enough to eat, so who really paid much attention to food safety?” says Wu Guangqiu, a senior producer with China Central Television’s Weekly Quality Report, a long-running consumer watchdog show. “So food safety is really a process. It’s is very difficult to manage under the current ‘national conditions’.”

By national conditions, Wu may be referring in part to the one-party political system. But he won’t say that. “I feel our strength [as a media outlet] is quite great,” he says. “But it’s very difficult for us to uncover the full extent of an issue. This is a technical problem that exists all over the world, not just in China. Our analysis is meticulous but lacks the weight of evidence. We’ll expose one or two small companies but it’s much harder to report comprehensively.”

One writer and activist who goes for broke is Zhou Qing, who spent three years in prison for his publishing activities during the Tiananmen democracy movement. I profiled his newly released book, ‘What Kind of God’, on this week. Originally published in a Beijing-based journal of reportage in 2004, it was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses prize for the genre in 2006. But the book version, according to Zhou, was heavily sanitized by its state publishers and under-promoted at the behest of the authorities.

Zhou’s pungent thesis survives implicitly in the satirical innuendo of the title, a play on the dynastic proverb “food is the people’s Heaven,” begging: “what kind of food?” The answer is unsettling: seafood fattened with birth control pills, pigs fed everything from strips of leather to banned “lean-meat essence”, and soy sauce flavored with shorn hair off the barber shop floor. All for the sake of lower costs and higher margins.

Zhou’s oeuvre reads much less like Upton Sinclair or the NYT than it does Michael Moore, and the diabetic author cuts an unhealthy figure to boot. One wonders what a symbol of his nation’s excesses he might become right now were that nation to have a free press.
In person, Zhou warns that his country’s food safety maladies are literally poisoning the ruling Communist Party’s chief source of political sustenance today: its success in feeding 1.3 billion people. Only most people have been so overindulged and under-informed, as he sees it, that they don’t really care that much. “Besides consumption, Chinese people have nothing else to do,” he says. “Everyone’s busy and blind.”

The Communist Party’s definition of human rights begins with feeding its people. And while food security may be no longer be the pressing challenge it once was, Zhou says food safety is. “An autocratic society’s legitimacy is based on lies and terror. The problem of food safety is a combination of exactly that, lies and terror,” he notes. “Just finding out food safety problems can make this autocratic society more transparent in general. But we really need international support.”

That’s because most Chinese can’t afford not to eat their country’s food. As a matter of fact, can we?

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