Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

China - The Need for Greater Food Safety Controls
Corriere della Sera - September 23rd 2008

The tragedy of contaminated baby milk in China is just the latest in a long series of such scandals, all of which follow the same pattern. There is early evidence of unsafe, criminal behaviour; it is covered up; it eventually emerges, with tragic consequences and public anger; the Chinese government promises to tighten up its controls to make sure it doesn’t happen again; then nothing really is done, and further scandals occur. The conclusion is clear: until the Communist Party system itself is reformed, these scandals and tragedies will keep on occurring.

            By “reform” I do not necessarily mean democracy or overthrow of the whole political system, though that would be desirable for other reasons. From the narrower point of view of health and safety rules, what is needed is a reform that separates government from active involvement in pricing, in company management and in the control of media and other information sources. In other words, the body that is responsible for enforcing the law needs to be separated from the bodies that are involved in breaking it, in setting up incentives to break it, and in preventing criminal behaviour from being publicised.

            This baby-milk scandal is little different from earlier scandals involving lead paint in children’s toys or poisonous dumplings. The chairwoman of the company making the milk was appointed by the provincial Communist Party. Information about the dilution of milk using melamine first appeared in 2005. City officials in the city where the company is based seem to have suppressed news about what was happening. Only once four babies died, more than 13,000 were hospitalised and 53,000 fell ill was any action taken.

            The question now is whether public anger will be sufficient to force any real changes in the law enforcement system. Yet given the way the Chinese political and economic system works, the anger would have to be truly huge in order to have any real impact. For nothing is really likely to change as long as the rule-enforcers and the rule-breakers are part of the same party and government organisations, and as long as the media is not free. There will be plenty more scandals. Be careful what you eat and drink when visiting China.


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