An April report by China’s national broadcaster CCTV detailed the manufacturing process followed by 16 companies that sell preserved fruit. It made the meat-packing methods described by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” a century ago seem pale by comparison.
Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.
Toxic preserved fruit is the latest item on China’s expanding list of unsafe food products. Baby formula adulterated with melamine is the best known, but there is also meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become ill each year from bacterial food-borne diseases, leading to about 8,500 deaths annually.
China’s food-safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country’s business ethics and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. Yet an excessive focus on poor government oversight often means that the much graver problem of disintegrating civic morality is neglected.
Amid growing public discontent the Chinese government enacted the Food Safety Law. The point of the legislation, which took effect in June 2009, was to prohibit the use of unauthorized additives and also, more broadly, to provide a basis for strengthening oversight “from farm to fork.” In 2010, a national commission of three vice premiers and a dozen minister-level officials was set up. This year the central government asked provincial authorities to “increase the punishment for illegal criminal behavior in food safety.”
But implementation has been bedeviled by inefficiency and corruption. Given China’s underdeveloped institutional capabilities and its weak civil society, fulfilling regulatory objectives often depends on administrative fiat. And the Food Safety Law, combined with various recent rounds of administrative restructuring, has further fragmented the state’s regulatory capabilities over the food industry.
While the Ministry of Health is now responsible for coordinating food-safety issues, three other government agencies are entrusted with overseeing food production, distribution and use, respectively. This not only complicates information sharing and coordination among departments. It also provides fertile ground for bureaucratic shirking and buck-passing.
These failures in regulation underscore the importance of ethics in governing how people should behave in business transactions. But it’s precisely because of failures in that area, too, that lack of food safety is such a serious concern in China.
Historically, two state ideologies — Confucianism and communism — acted as restraints on commercial dealings. Traditional Chinese society acknowledged the human desire for wealth, but it also warned that, “A man of noble character acquires his wealth by just and ethical means.” Later, the Maoist regime’s emphasis on sacrificing the individual self to the collective also served as a moral check on people’s behavior.
The destruction of Confucianism during the Cultural Revolution and the hollowing out of communism during the recent reform era left behind a vacuum of belief. This was quickly filled in by materialism.
Although materialism also is common in the West, religious values, along with well-developed regulatory frameworks and the rule of law, help define what is acceptable in business there. In China, the revival of capitalism has been driven almost entirely by the pursuit of wealth. In the words of Deng Xiaoping, “To get rich is glorious.”
This single-minded pursuit of material interests is now threatening China’s moral baseline. In a nationwide, online survey of nearly 23,000 adults last October, about 82 percent of respondents agreed that China has experienced a significant moral decline over the past decade. More than 40 percent attributed the slip to the worship of money (35 percent blamed it on development problems and inadequate enforcement of the law). Yet more than half of the respondents also said they did not think that complying with ethical standards was a necessary condition for success.
Ordinary citizens are trying to take food safety into their own hands. Farmers trust only the produce they’ve grown themselves. A Beijing taxi driver once told me that he avoids small grocery stores. Yet there is no guarantee that food sold in shopping malls is safer: the State General Administration of Sports forbids its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities. As far back as 2008, the government started setting up Special Food Supply Centers to make sure the elite eats organic.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has invoked food scandals as examples of the “absence of integrity and a landslide of morality” in China, adding that, “It would be absolutely impossible for a state to become a truly powerful and respectful one if it did not see improvement of its national quality and moral strength.”
But his pleas for better business ethics have fallen on deaf ears. The Chinese elite doesn’t fully acknowledge the problem itself. In April an article in the communist mouthpiece Qiushi (“Seeking Truth”) denied that there has been any systematic decline in morals. Perhaps this should come as no surprise since many Chinese politicians and law-enforcement officials are the ones behind the moral landslide.
Yes, different cultures have different moral standards, but any functioning society needs a basic moral code. One can only hope that after China’s recent slew of scandals — about food safety, about the murder allegedly committed by Bo Xilai’s wife, about corruption by the former railway minister Liu Zhijun — reform-minded leaders will amass enough political capital to push for fundamental change and a more ethical society.
Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.