Posted by: Dexter Roberts on January 17, 2008
China announced today new progress in efforts to clean up a major food and drug safety and quality mess. According to a news release on the website of the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine—one of the government bodies responsible for monitoring product and food safety—following a four-month campaign, 1,480 people have been arrested following 1187 criminal investigations into producers and sellers of fake or substandard food, drugs, and agricultural goods. The report mentioned that more than 300 medicine makers were shuttered during the crackdown, while files on 33,000 consumer goods makers were assembled as part of a new quality and safety monitoring network.
There is no doubt that’s progress but it also brings to my mind less salubrious elements in Beijing’s crackdown—those include renewed efforts to control the “quality” of press coverage of the issue, as well as ugly cases of arrests of journalists and whistleblowers. Indeed, even while Beijing has announced it intends to protect the legal rights of journalists to report the news, it has also carried out regular crackdowns on what it deems “illegal” news reports (apparently that can include most unapproved reports on corruption, crime, certain environmental disasters, as well as often food and drug quality problems). News organizations that are judged guilty of these reports have been punished with censorship and financial penalties. Even more egregious was the jailing a couple years ago by local officials of one individual who posted an online report on corruption involving a local food and drug monitoring agency (the individual was finally released after nine months in jail—that was only after the corruption became a national issue which eventually led to the execution last year of the former national head of the State Food and Drug Administration). Also misguided—the arrest and sentencing last year to one year in jail of a part-time Beijing-based TV journalist, for reportedly fabricating a news item on substandard pork buns.
A tendency to shoot the messenger sad to say is hardly limited to issues involving just product quality. Journalists (of which at least 29 are in jail, according to a report last year by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists) and other whistle blower activists have also lost their jobs or even gone to jail for reporting on local corruption, land and property seizures, as well as environmental degradation. The activist who did more than anyone to expose massive pollution in China’s Lake Tai in Jiangsu province near Shanghai is presently in jail for what many believe is trumped up charges of extortion and fraud, for example. Indeed, although it is good to hear that Chinese officials are cracking down on producers and sellers of health-threatening goods and food, it is unlikely the massive problem will ever be fully solved by Beijing-driven campaigns like the latest one. More likely, Beijing will only begin to get a real handle on the problem when it starts to tolerate a more independent watchdog press and bigger role for non-governmental organizations, in reporting on this massive problem.