Even in a country estimated to kill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China">thousands of people per year, the execution this week of China's corrupt food and drug chief was unusual, a powerful statement that signaled that China means business when it comes to fixing its problems, and a symbol of the power the government can wield when it wants to. (If only the U.S. did something similar to its corrupt officials, some half-joked.) But a symbol won't address the deeper problems that China must if it is to have, say, non-toxic toothpaste or breathable air.
That Zheng Xiaoyu's sentencing took place on the same day that China announced its first regulation on the recall of food, amidst widespread global concern over nearly everything "Made in China," proved that the government is concerned as well. Not only is the country's image an issue for its leaders, just over a year before it hosts the Olympics (for which it has just announced food safety measures), but so is its stability. Next to land grabs carried out by local officials, tainted food and water is a top worry for the country's millions of rural residents, whose protests signal arguably the biggest threat to China's government.
But that Zheng's execution took place the same week that the China Development Brief -- an indispensable Western-run newsletter/blog for information on the country's social issues -- was killed by the authorities proves that China isn't serious about improving food safety or much else.
To the extent that his bribe-taking led to the deaths of over a dozen people, Zheng was not so much a scapegoat for the food safety problem as he was a red herring; his execution is no more powerful than a strongly-worded statement.
It raises the question once again: is China hobbled by its own lack of interest or is it simply incapable of dealing with problems like food safety, intellectual property and the environment? The answer is both. The solution depends upon the will of leaders to execute not criminals but serious reforms.
For instance, instead of killing officials (and other criminals for that matter) -- and instead of complaining about China's frequent use of the death penalty -- China's leaders and its critics alike would do better to focus on the justice system that decides these cases, and that often fails to do justice to cases of corruption, worker abuse and the environment until it absolutely must. Instead of worrying about propagandizing strong government efforts -- or boycotting the Olympics, as some critics have urged -- a better solution would come with continued publicity of and dialogue about the country's problems. As the new food and drug chief was quoted as saying today, "Transparency is the enemy of corruption."
He's right, and China knows it. Last month, the government rescinded a recent order that limited domestic media coverage of weather- and environmentally-related disasters. Today, the government announced that rather than approving drugs through a single person or department, as was the case with Zheng, a special panel and local watchdogs will be in charge of approval. As the country gets richer too, regulatory reform on the scale of that of the U.S. (estimated to cost $100 billion by one study) will speed up.
But the road is slow, slower than it could be. Most of China's recent moves simply won't do much to change the fundamental problems. If Chinese officials really want to do make an impact and brighten China's image, they will need to focus on improving the legal system and its enforcement, benefiting the masses through health care and beefing up education.
Improving those things -- and not the state's propaganda machine, which has lately, for instance, censored a report on pollution deaths -- are key to helping China better see its problems so that it can begin to apply its great power to fixing them.
Censorship, made increasingly impractical due to the internet, should be phased out sooner rather than later. Market reforms and strong financial disincentives are needed, as is improved training of and coordination among government offices. And the people, the proverbial beneficiaries of the government's power must not only be served, but allowed to serve. Listen to Pan Yue, the country's environmental chief, from an interview last week:
Why the environment keeps worsening despite the country's top environmental authority's best efforts? The answer is because we've relied too much on administrative measures in the past. It proves the traditional way of using administrative power alone cannot solve all the problems. We need a comprehensive method that would incorporate administrative power, market players and the people into a cohesive force to tackle environment damage.... The environment is not a lofty dream or just lofty words for [citizens]. It means securing a better future for their children, their health and maintaining their property. They are the most efficient group to supervise related government departments and enterprises and ensure if they have fulfilled their duties toward the environment. (They also are) a driving force for the government's self reform.
In that vein, here's Nick Young, the founder of the shuttered China Development Brief, today:
I do consider myself to be a friend of China. I think it's a serious problem if the state cannot distinguish between friends and enemies.China should have a better system for regulating food and protecting the environment and a host of other things -- and it should continue to question the all too common practice of killing enemies of the state.
First, though, it must stop killing its friends.
Photo: Eye Press, via Associated Press