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China Executes Food And Drug Safety Regulator

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 11, 2007

We confess we thought it was a joke… surely they weren’t really going to execute the guy when we mentioned that China’s chief food and drug safety regulator had been sentenced to death.

But he was executed.

It was mostly a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had been sentenced just as China began feeling an urgent need to show the world toughness on food safety. The Chinese are taking it seriously:

China risks damaging its global credibility and provoking social instability if it does not tackle its food and drug quality problems, an official said in a rare admission amid a series of scares over tainted products.

China’s safety failings have drawn world attention since mislabeled chemical exports were found in cough syrup in Panama and pet food in the United States. There have been a series of recalls and bans on items ranging from toys to toothpaste.

In one of the most recent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it would not allow imports of Chinese farm-raised seafood unless suppliers could prove the shipments held no harmful residues.

"The food security problems have impeded Chinese agri-products and food many times in international trade, and damaged our national credibility and image," Sun Xianze, director of food safety coordination at the State Food and Drug Administration, said at a weekend seminar.

"The occurrence of food safety incidents or cases not only affects the healthy development of the whole industry, but also may impact upon economic and social stability," Sun was quoted as saying by state media.

Dealing with these problems was being hampered by indolent and irresponsible officials and companies, admitted administration head Shao Mingli in a statement on its Web site (www.sda.gov.cn).

"In some regions, rectification work is carried out without energy and the quality of work does not come up to standard: it is perfunctory and sluggish," he was quoted as telling the meeting.

China has taken steps to clarify that bribery is illegal and will be punished even if a Chinese official doesn’t personally get a bribe but arranges for a family member to receive one:

China’s highest court and top prosecutor have issued a legal interpretation to combat official graft by widening the definition of bribery and granting leniency to officials who return ill-gotten gains. As Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing, China has been struggling to stamp out widespread corruption, which threatens the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

According to the joint legal interpretation, officials can now face prosecution for corruption even if they do not directly receive a bribe themselves or if they receive bribes after they retire.

The rules say an official can now be charged with corruption if cash, gifts or favors are given to family members or an affiliate with the aim of gaining the official’s influence.

The new rules also make it illegal to help arrange bribes.

David Zweig is an expert on China at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says the rules will make it easier for prosecutors to take on corrupt officials when there are no records of direct financial transfers.

"My sense is what they are trying to say is ’we are going to catch you.’ We are going to catch you when you retire," said Zweig. "Do not think you can grab the money now or cut the deal now, help somebody and you will get away with it later. We are going to catch you.’"

The official Xinhua news agency reported the rules target "new forms of corruption" to try to "catch up with the tricks of wily, corrupt officials."

The new ways of bribing officials include offering shares in companies, large discounts on houses and cars, and gambling.

The rules say officials who return bribes before they or related people are investigated will not face corruption charges, but did not indicate whether or not they could face other disciplinary measures.

The government has struggled for decades to fight widespread corruption, which Chinese leaders have said could undermine Communist Party rule.

China has in recent years convicted dozens of high-level officials, including the recent death sentence of the former head of China’s food and drug administration.

The China Daily newspaper said the new legal interpretation backs up a May regulation issued by the Communist Party’s discipline organ, which offered leniency to corrupt officials who confess their crimes.

The newspaper quoted the deputy secretary in charge of party discipline as saying, despite the offer, only a small number of officials have confessed. The paper said the official warned that China needs a better legal system to fight corruption.

Yet as this article in The Wall Street Journal points out, there is a cultural loophole that seems to limit prosecutions to the officials who are recipients of bribes but exempts people who offer or pay bribes from prosecution:

…what is less certain is China’s commitment to addressing the possibly more-widespread practice of offering bribes, not just the high-profile government officials who take them….

As a policy, the Chinese prosecution — they normally don’t go after the people who bribe. It’s been very consistent," says Fu Hualing, an associate professor on the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong. "It doesn’t matter if it’s the lawyers bribing the judges or the companies bribing the officials."

Dr. Fu says bribery is a part of Chinese society and that the public and the government look at those who bribe with more sympathy than the government officials who accept bribes. "If you talk to people on the street, they will think that it’s the government officials who should be prosecuted, not the people who bribe," Dr. Fu says.

One is not quite sure what to make of this. On the one hand, it is obviously difficult to enforce an ethical standard on one side of an activity but not the other. On the other hand, in a society in which bribery is so common, the line between bribery and extortion is muddy indeed.

China is an amazing country, though, and if their initial instinct was to blame the West for making things up as a form of trade protection, more recent indications are that the Chinese authorities know that they have a problem.

In China, when the authorities focus on a problem, they usually make swift progress. One thing is certain: the world will be watching.

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