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Monday, July 16, 2007

China ignores real problem

Mon, July 16, 2007


China's main diplomatic characteristic -- saving face -- is in overdrive these days in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. So recent widespread problems with Chinese food and drug manufacturing are more embarrassing than usual.

"Made in China" is now synonymous with "buyer beware".

First it was poisoned pet food exported to the West that killed dogs and cats, then it was toxic fish from Chinese fish farms, toothpaste sweetened with antifreeze, juice with unsafe colour dyes and children's toys painted with lead paint.

Counterfeit products are rife -- brand names and quality certifications on labels are meaningless. It ranges from the massive to the ridiculous: A recent news item out of Beijing reported that a dim sum restaurant was selling pork dumplings with shredded cardboard -- softened with industrial chemicals -- instead of pork.

The arc of all these stories is the same: The Chinese government denies the news, then tries to explain it, then executes a scapegoat.

It's the same approach they took during the SARS outbreak; it's the same approach all dictatorships take, including the Soviet Union's approach to the Chernobyl nuclear fire.

And so, it was no surprise that China announced that it had executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of that country's food and drug administration from 1997 to 2006.

The government alleged Zheng took nearly $1-million in bribes over that period from food manufacturers.

That's likely true -- kick-backs and bribes are the standard privilege that all senior Communist Party members take for themselves.

But Zheng's crime in the eyes of China wasn't that he allowed poisonous food, but that his corrupt trail was caught by the media.

The execution of Zheng was designed to show that China is serious about cracking down on poisonous food, and perhaps even on corruption, too.

But it actually does the opposite. Zheng's trial was not a real trial, for there are no real trials in China -- no presumption of innocence, no rule of law, no rules of evidence and no independent judges.

The judges -- as always -- are directed by the Communist Party in how to render their verdicts.

They're more clerks than judges.

Because a real trial is exactly what the face-saving Chinese Communists don't want.

They wanted a single scapegoat: Zheng. Not a transparent trial. If Zheng had been the head of the Canadian or U.S. food administration, he would have had a lengthy public trial, where prosecutors would have had to publicize the details of his corrupt deeds.

Zheng himself could have implicated others and the whole thing would have been pored over by the public and the media -- and by other food manufacturers and bureaucrats. The trial itself would have become one giant teaching moment -- where China could have used the law to teach a new, higher moral code when it comes to food and drug safety.

China didn't do that because it is still a culture of government secrecy and scapegoating. The government wanted someone to blame. Zheng probably was guilty, but a fair trial could have fingered dozens if not hundreds more, and would have forced China to come to terms with its problem.

No doubt, the entire system of food inspection would be overhauled if such a trial were held in the West.

It is only a partial truth to say that China has a food problem -- or a pollution problem.

What it has is worse: A dictatorship problem.
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