China's Penalties Fail to Improve Safety

China's system of harsh punishments has done little to prevent public safety crimes like the adulteration of infant formula, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-09-30
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BOSTON--China's milk scandal is following a familiar pattern of crime and punishment as the government holds a handful of culprits responsible for widespread abuses, experts say.

At least 25 individuals have faced arrest or firing since the first reports on Sept. 10 that Chinese infant formula made by the Sanlu Group was contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine.

Farm managers and dealers at a milk collection station in Hebei province have been detained, while officials in the northern city of Shijiazhuang and Sanlu's chairwoman have lost their jobs, according to state media reports.

As the crisis spread to other companies and products, Li Changjiang resigned his post as head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) with the State Council's approval on Sept. 22.

Li was responsible for improving safety practices after a wave of recalls on Chinese products including toothpaste, toys, drugs, food and furniture over the past year.

But the list of arrests in the dairy case pales in comparison to the number of victims. At least 53,000 children have been treated for kidney problems, and four infants have died.

State investigators have said that the coal derivative melamine was added to watered-down milk as a way to boost nitrogen and pass protein tests. Much of the fake product was turned into infant formula as powdered milk. Melamine has been found in food products from at least 22 dairies and companies, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Punishments expected

Harsh punishments are expected, but experts say such punishments have had little effect in the past in deterring crimes in health and safety cases.

They note that in July 2007, the government executed the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), Zheng Xiayou, for dereliction of duty and taking bribes. Zheng was blamed for approving a series of fake drugs that caused illness and death. But a little over a year later, officials are under fire for unsafe products again.

David Dapice, an Asia scholar and economist at Harvard and Tufts Universities, said the government has failed to stop common corruption by punishing a small number of officials. He believes a much broader approach is needed.

"If more people were named, shamed, fined and fired, I think that would work much better than a few being executed," Dapice said in a Radio Free Asia interview.

The milk case has raised many of the same questions about government regulation as other scandals that have put large numbers of lives at risk -- the collapse of badly built schools during the Sichuan earthquake, chemical dumping into water supplies. and cave-ins at illegal coal mines.

Why have such crimes continued if the government has promised to stop them and the penalties are so severe?

Not a deterrent

Dapice said one reason is that corruption has become so widespread in China that even the harshest punishments for a few officials are not a deterrent.

"So long as many, many people are corrupt and the calculation is only a few will be severely disciplined, you play the odds," Dapice said. "Many of these Chinese officials know very well that a few might be caught but most will not be, and that it pays to be corrupt."

Dapice said the government might do a better job by imposing lesser penalties against more people than by singling out a few for the harshest punishments. But that would require a more effective legal system and a way to deal with citizen complaints, he said.

David Bachman, a professor of international studies at Washington University in Seattle, said that public health and safety scandals are often portrayed as local corruption problems or as failures to follow directives from Beijing. But the issue goes deeper than that, Bachman said.

"The real problem is that local political elites, with the de facto backing of the center, are still being told to keep production up. That remains the highest priority, the highest incentive," he said.

China's central government increasingly understands the consequences of unregulated production, but the party system continues to provide rewards, Bachman told RFA.

"For guys lower down on the totem pole, the incentives for promotion and everything else remain to produce, to turn in your taxes, to keep order, to manage your population quota," he said. "If you do that, you get ahead in the system, and that's the way the Communist Party works."

Bachman said the government has established safety watchdog agencies like GASQIQ and the SFDA, but it still hasn't decided to make them effective. To do so would mean interfering with the production-oriented system that has been in operation for years.

"I think they haven't resolved in their own minds how much power they really want to give these regulatory bodies and how important the reputation for quality and consistency is," Bachman said.

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