China leaders juggle safety scares ahead of conclave

on August 28 2007 8:28 AM

With the Made in China brand under threat, steering the world's third-largest exporter through the public relations minefield of food and product safety is one of its leaders' biggest immediate tasks.

But coming in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party's most important political event this year and a year ahead of China's Olympic coming-out party, the timing couldn't be more awkward.

Counterfeit, shoddy and dangerous goods are nothing new to ordinary Chinese. But when concerns about Chinese products began to dominate world headlines after a pet food recall in the United States in March, the leadership could not help but take notice.

President Hu Jintao and other members of the party's decision-making Politburo listened to reports about food safety as early as April.

It caught the leadership's attention only after the issue was internationalized and impacted China's international image and possibly trade, said a political commentator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It's an old problem, but the leadership had no choice but to attach importance to it, the commentator said.

The scares have involved products as diverse as food to toothpaste, toys and tires -- representing the vast array of products at the lower end of the value chain for which the world has come to rely on China.

The crisis has erupted as Chinese leaders jockey for power ahead of the 17th Party Congress, the closed-door conclave of the party elite held only every five years, at which Hu is expected to shed himself of the shadow of predecessor Jiang Zemin.

In addition to party politics, the leadership has been preoccupied with managing prices and a roller-coaster stock market, grain supplies, official corruption, pollution, protests and, not least, how to rein in Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own over which it will go to war if necessary.

For the leadership, food safety is not the most important issue, said a source with ties to the leadership. There are a lot of others on their minds.

BLUNT REACTION

Once woken up to the issue, however, the reaction has been blunt and authoritarian. The food and drug safety chief was executed for taking bribes and a television reporter jailed for fabricating news about steamed pork buns stuffed with cardboard.

The government overreacted, Zhou Qing, author of The Masses Regard Food as their Heaven, a book about food safety, said of the one-year prison term meted out to the journalist.

The world's fourth-biggest economy also blacklisted 429 exporters and media censors declared war on fake news, partly in response to the fabricated pork buns story but analysts say also to crack down on product safety in general and create an atmosphere of stability ahead of the party congress.

It is also throwing money at the problem, pledging to spend $1 billion to improve food and drug safety by 2010. In June, it issued a five-year plan to counter dangerous medicines and bad food that will mandate inspections at farms, factories and ports by qualified and corruption-free inspectors.

Most recently, the leadership has turned to Vice Premier Wu Yi, a Politburo member and top troubleshooter who commands respect abroad, in a move that was bound to reassure trade partners that China is taking the problem seriously.

Wu immediately launched a four-month war on tainted food, drugs and exports, calling the campaign a stern political task in a reminder that political careers could be on the line.

Two delegations were due to visit the United States in August and September to discuss safety measures.

But while the government acknowledges it has to clean up its manufacturing sector and strengthen regulations, it has also accused trade partners of protectionism and unfair treatment.

After the massive recall of Chinese-made toys manufactured for U.S. toy giant Mattel, China accused the West of being motivated by politics and being biased and poisoned by jealousy.

The Chinese people are the intended audience, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo said of those diatribes.

The government is trying to tell ordinary Chinese to believe that it has done a lot of things and made a lot of efforts to ensure food safety.

Ultimately the scandals are a timely reminder to the party ahead of the Congress of the challenge of running a country of 1.3 billion people while keeping under control free-wheeling and often corrupt local administrations thousands of miles (kilometers) away.

I suspect the leadership did not realize how serious the problem is because of cover-ups at every level of government, said author Zhou.

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