The Reasoned Review

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China’s Got That Taint

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The Times gives a nice in-depth scoop on yet another tainted milk scandal in China. The same industrial contaminant, melamine, again found its way into thousands of dairy products, ice creams, frozen yogurts, etc. The last time this was publicized was in 2008, but apparently contamination has occurred continuously throughout. More than 300,000 people were sickened in the 2008 outbreak, and the Chinese government felt itself compelled to execute 2 people over it. As they say, heads will roll.

The article reports that Chinese outlets are quoting the head of the Guandong Dairy Association as saying the contamination was kept quiet “in order to safeguard the good name of the dairy industry.

This, I think, is significant. In the former Soviet Union and Mao-era China, scandals like these occurred at an unprecedented rate – and on a far larger scale. The failure of Stalin’s collectivization, the horrific famine attendant the “Great Leap Forward”, and China’s sham “backyard steel” industry were massive blunders that caused untold human suffering. (The Great Leap Forward alone killed 30,000,000 Chinese peasants.) But what’s striking about these mistakes was that they continued long after the plan’s stupidity became clear. Khrushchev tried planting maize in Russia and kept trying after years of crop failures. Mao continued to force his peasants to make steel in their backyards, long after it became clear that they could only produce worthless pig iron. What made these leaders so blind?

One theory is the hierarchical power structure of both countries. Power there was strictly a top-down affair; everyone had a boss, everyone a subordinate. And the bosses had unusual latitude in “firing” their subordinates.  In those countries (especially during their “great terror” phases; 1936-1945 in the Soviet Union, and 1966-1976 in China) being “fired” meant you were actually shot.

As a result, a culture of abject terror developed – if you were an inspector or some other bureaucrat, you simply couldn’t report bad news, or at least report it and expect not to be arrested the next day. So you had these spectacular failures in practice – but on paper the economy was still chugging along; growing, in fact, at an unprecedented rate.  Solzhenitsyn writes extensively about this system (called Tufkta) in Russia, and I can only imagine it was similar in China.

Over the years, these once-totalitarian countries began to ease the internal repression. They were still nominally one-party states, and you could still get in trouble for joining the wrong organization (see the Falun Gong in China) – but so long as you did your job and weren’t overtly anti-government, you could reasonably expect to avoid being arrested. Yet the same culture of Tuftka, of fudging the numbers to make things “look better” persisted. Hence China’s dizzying (and dubious) GDP growth.

China’s bureaucracy is not well-suited to solving problems like tainted milk. The opportunities for corner-cutting, for graft, are just too great – and after all, its ruling party doesn’t exactly have to stand for election. It will be interesting to see how they reassure the world of the quality of their products; whether they’ll execute a few more low-level functionaries to show us they mean business. For it’s clear that China seeks the world market. And it’s equally clear that Europe and America (as well as China’s domestic population) are not interested in a tainted product.


Written by pavanvan

January 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm

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