China’s power, China’s people: towards accountability

Li Datong
29 September 2008

The world sees two Chinas: one that can host a stupendous Olympic games and send astronauts on a successful space-mission, another that is inured to crisis and disaster. Much of modern China's predicament lies in the need to understand the reasons why the "second" China is so enduring and persistent - and what must be done to change it.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

"The Olympics: was China ready?" (22 August 2008)

"The Beijing Olympics: the last award" (29 August 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)Even before the glow of the great sporting events of August-September 2008 in Beijing had faded, a series of major incidents struck China:

  • on 8 September in Shanxi, a wall holding back a reservoir of mining waste collapsed, causing a mudslide that killed 268 people

  • on 20 September in Shenzhen, a fire at an unlicensed nightclub killed forty-three people

  • on 21 September, a fire at a coalmine in Heilongjiang killed thirty-seven people

  • even more shocking than the above, the Hebei-based Sanlu company's illegal addition of melamine to milk-powder left several babies dead and 50,000 with kidney-stones. An emergency-testing programme found that virtually all of China's well-known dairy brands contained the chemical. The result was nationwide panic, in which worried parents besieged hospitals and supermarkets were overwhelmed by customers seeking to return products. There were many arguments and even violence amid the overall confusion.

An unhealthy collusion

Indeed, it is arguable that food-safety is the most important of all public-security issues. A popular online post - entitled "China eliminates chemical illiteracy through food" - makes the point:

"Through rice we learned about paraffin-wax. Ham taught us about DDVP. Salted duck-eggs and chili sauce educated us about Sudan Red. Hotpot brought us knowledge of formalin. Silver-ring fungus and candied dates let us study sulphur dioxide. Wood-ear fungus told us of copper sulphate. And now, Sanlu is using milk-powder to teach the Chinese nation the chemical functions of melamine. . . When foreigners drink milk, they get strong. When Chinese people drink milk, they get kidney stones!"

The statistics compiled by Chinese netizens show that in the last decade there have been at least sixty cases of contaminated food - from pigs being fed detergents to turtles fed with contraceptives. China's role in international trade mean that some of these, including the milk-powder case, have wider reverberations. Each revelation, if and when it does come to the light, is in its own way a shock to Chinese people; but the abrupt shift from the intoxication of the Olympics to alarm about the toxins they and their children may have been consuming is an especially rude awakening.

China's rapid economic growth has now lasted for three decades - but it has still not been accompanied by the establishment of sound commercial ethics. Methods of production which increase profits but harm consumer interests are adopted wholesale while going unreported. But the problem is not just one of business practice, for in many areas the government offers protection for fake and/or poor-quality goods.

Some years ago, CCTV reporters acting on a tip visited a certain county, where they found the streets lined with shops selling sub-standard raw materials for food production to merchants from around the nation. Only after filming the scene did they inform the local industrial and commercial authorities of their presence - and within five minutes uniformed officials were on the street telling shopkeepers to close for the day, in order to conceal the evidence as far as possible. The profit-motive means that local government and traders in fake goods are on the same side - then and now, for the authorities in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, have played such a role in the Sanlu milk-powder case.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (11 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008) A landscape of interests

The dislocated performance of the Chinese government, at all levels, is a prominent feature in all such public-safety incidents. To understand its behaviour is to get closer to addressing the heart of the food-safety and fake-goods problems.

The main purpose of government is to provide public order, infrastructure, a fair legal environment and safeguards for vulnerable groups. In the last thirty years in China, local government has acted rather as if it is the CEO of the local economy rather than the protector of the public interest; senior officials have given priority to economic development, and provincial and city officials have regarded negotiations with domestic and international investors as part of their job. Academics have described inter-provincial competition as one of the unique features of the Chinese economy, with cadres acting like the departmental heads of a large company - each vying to ensure his own department outperforms the others in order to win promotion.

This naturally leads local officials to protect large local companies - after all, they contribute to the wealth of the area and often form its main source of taxation income. The result is that the local government perceives it as being in its own interests to cover up illegal behaviour by these companies. Thus, Sanlu's annual income from milk-powder sales - amounting to 10 billion renminbi ($1.46 bn)- is one of the main sources of taxation income for the Shijiazhuang authorities; so when news of the scandal started to leak, the city government was able to keep a lid on it for a month. If not for the role of out-of-province media reports and the spread of the story online, the affair may never have come to light.

Another factor in these developments is the collapse in governmental ethics. In relation to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), for example, official supervision is often closer to extortion that forces firms towards bankruptcy. In Mao Zedong's era, many officials had joined the revolution out of genuine commitment to the nation and its people; the ethical standards of public officials reflected this. It is also true that at the time, officials earned a high income compared with the rest of society, so material temptations were less of an issue.

The new, post-reform generation of officials has grown up in a more stratified society which has turned the structures of morality as well as income upside down.A rich minority possesses more than one half of all society's wealth, and the officials are no longer at the top of the pile - they have become "poor". But they have found it easy to exchange the power they still hold for the privileges of the rich - even if ethics and compassion fly out of the window. So what if there's a little of something else in the milk powder, affecting even children's favourite sweets?

The people's right

If officials were elected by the people, if there was a free press watching their every move, if there was the deterrent of an independent judiciary - then the Sanlu and other incidents would be much less likely to occur. If and when they did, they would be much more quickly dealt with. The fact that none of these conditions exist makes recurrent tragedies inevitable.

But the exposure of recent incidents in the media has had one positive effect: central government has begun to punish those responsible. In the space of a fortnight, many officials - including the governor of Shanxi, the head of the administration responsible for supervising food-quality, and the party secretaries of Hebei and Shijiazhuang - have lost their jobs. The media have described this as a "storm of punishment". Yet even this response is far from enough: sanctions emanating from central government will not end corruption.

The real step forward, rather, would be if the principle embodied in the punishment - that those who harm public interests should be held accountable - becomes a principle of governance. The sacking of officials will not guarantee that their successors will work for the people; what will make the difference is an acceptance by China's most powerful leaders that their legitimacy rests on the people's decision and consent.

The Olympic and Paralympic games, and the Shenzhou-7 spacewalk, are signs of one China; the milk-powder affair of another. The first cannot put the second to rights. The party secretary of Hunan has bravely stated the only thing that can: "giving power back to the people". There is a long way still to go.

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